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Dangers of asbestos in the automotive industry

Construction is widely thought of as the main industry to be affected by exposure to asbestos. The substance was widely used in the building of residential and commercial properties during the 1960s onwards, until its ban in the UK in 1999. But the vehicle industry has also seen numerous incidences of asbestos-related disease among its workers.

One such case is that of former motor mechanic, David Ward, who was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 2014. This is a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer, attributed to asbestos exposure.

Mr Ward’s employment in a factory that used asbestos during the 1960s could have been the sole cause of the disease, but having also worked as a motor mechanic for much of the rest of his working life, the dangers he was exposed to were significantly magnified.

How was asbestos used in the vehicle industry?

Asbestos generated the friction needed in brake linings and other car parts including gaskets and clutches. Its insulating qualities and ability to prevent the transfer of heat also made it an ideal material for vehicle manufacture during the 1960s and 1970s, but the dangers then remained either hidden or unknown.

Mechanics working with these vehicle parts would have been regularly exposed to asbestos, with one particularly dangerous practice in automotive workshops being to force dust out of the brake drums with an air hose.

This would have contaminated the air on a consistent basis, potentially setting up fatal diseases in those who worked there and were forced to inhale the dust. The sanding down of brake linings was another source of danger for mechanics, releasing more dust and fibres from the asbestos within.

One of the problems when dust and fibres are released is that they linger in the air for several hours. The use of an air line to eject dust from the brake drums also disperses the dust around the room or building, potentially endangering other members of staff. Workers’ clothing will also become contaminated, which puts their family at risk on their return home.

Does asbestos still pose a danger in the industry?

The use of asbestos was prohibited in the UK in 1999, and no longer poses a problem in relation to cars manufactured from 2000 onwards. The dangers remain in older vehicles, however, with many classic cars potentially retaining parts that contain asbestos.

This is one of the reasons why asbestos awareness training is so important for any worker who could encounter the substance during their normal line of work. It helps them to identify asbestos-containing materials, and to understand why precautions must be taken to protect themselves and others.

Owners of classic cars undertaking repairs themselves can also be at significant risk of exposure to asbestos, especially as they generally do not use the professional tools available in a workshop.

Cars imported from abroad may pose a problem in relation to asbestos use, particularly if there is no indication of where their parts were sourced. This caused a significant problem in 2012, when cars manufactured in China were imported into Australia. Customs officers are reported to have discovered parts containing asbestos, resulting in the recall of 23,000 cars.