Accountancy is not a profession normally associated with asbestos awareness, but the death of a man from Cornwall illustrates the wide-reaching issues of working in our older commercial buildings.
There was little awareness of the dangers of working with asbestos during the time when the substance was most widely used – unlike today when asbestos training is obligatory for many workers and tradespeople.
Retired accountant, Douglas Swire, passed away at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in September last year. He had suffered deteriorating health over a period of months, and a post mortem revealed mesothelioma to be the cause of death.
Working near asbestos
According to the inquest, Mr Swire could have been exposed to asbestos in several workplaces during his accountancy career. His initial employment at a glass manufacturing company in the early 1960s, however, was of particular concern.
The assistant coroner, Stephen Covell, found evidence of asbestos insulation on the pipe work and furnace ducts in the glass factory, and said:
“I find that there is evidence to persuade me that certainly during that time, Douglas would have been exposed to asbestos fibre. In the 1960s, the dangers of asbestos were not known.”
Additional evidence showed that the site of the glass manufacturing firm was investigated for contamination in 2004, including asbestos.
Mesothelioma linked to asbestos exposure
Malignant pleural mesothelioma is specifically linked to asbestos exposure, with the chest pain and breathing problems suffered by Mr Swire being characteristic of the disease.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that affects the tissue lining the lungs, and has a long latency period of several decades once the fibres have been inhaled. Current asbestos training includes information about the effects of asbestos on health, and reinforces the fact that the dangers are still present decades later.
Although asbestos is said to be safe if left intact, a failure to adequately maintain older buildings, whether due to the expense or other factors, makes it likely that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) will disintegrate over time.
Asbestos and other professions
Exposure to asbestos was generally associated with workers in the construction and shipbuilding industries, but many cases of teachers and hospital workers have also been recorded in recent years.
The problem of asbestos in schools is commonly in the news, and the age of many hospital buildings means that ACMs are also highly likely to be present there, often as lagging on pipework, the linings of lift shafts, and also in the canteen areas.
‘Industrial disease’ conclusion at inquest
The coroner’s conclusion that Mr Swire’s death was the result of industrial disease, came after the pathologist recorded “longstanding’ scarring on the lungs. This suggested Mr Swire’s early employment with the glass manufacturer was the time when exposure initially occurred.
The latest Health and Safety Executive statistics show that 2,538 people died from mesothelioma in 2013. A latency period of as much as 60 years has been known from exposure to illness, and these figures are not expected to reduce until the end of the decade.