Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show the number of men dying from occupational asbestos-related disease is far greater than the figure for women. In 2014, there were 2,101 male deaths and 414 female deaths from mesothelioma.
These figures reflect an era of widespread asbestos use, along with high exposure rates for men working in heavy industry and the trades. The long latency period characteristic of asbestos illness means that only in the last decade or so have we seen such high numbers, and the devastating consequences of this health and safety ‘time bomb.’
An increasing number of ‘secondary exposure’ cases are also now emerging. Wives and children of asbestos workers have come into contact with the dust and fibres indirectly, often as a result of washing their husband’s or father’s work clothes.
“Dad’s overalls” compensation claims
Secondary exposure has even developed its own terminology. Sometimes known as “Dad’s overalls” cases, victims are the wives and children of those directly exposed to asbestos fibres at work.
Often the whole family were likely to breathe in the asbestos particles that covered work overalls and boots. Asbestos dust would settle on furniture and floors within houses, and without proper training or awareness, everyone inside became potential victims.
Employers’ duties to their workers
Employers had a duty of care to their employees, which has been argued should also have extended to their families. Given the nature of asbestos fibres and the ease with which they are transferred, it’s easy to understand the capacity for fibre transfer into workers’ homes particularly if overalls were shaken to remove dust prior to washing.
Although the characteristics of asbestos fibres vary – some are brittle and needle-like, whilst others softer and more pliable – all are readily inhaled once airborne.
Asbestos victims indirectly exposed to asbestos
Several cases have been reported in the news about wives and children of asbestos workers suffering life-changing and terminal diseases such as malignant mesothelioma, a terminal cancer of the lung membranes.
Janet Sibley recently passed away from mesothelioma, aged 69. It is believed Mrs Sibley came into contact with asbestos whilst washing the work clothes of both her father and her husband.
Mrs Sibley’s father worked on the docks during the 1960s, and her husband at a chemical plant where it is believed his clothes may also have been covered with asbestos dust and fibres.
Lynda Gontarek, whose father had worked as an electrician and foreman at York Carriageworks, died from mesothelioma in 2015. Again, Mrs Gontarek had washed her late father’s asbestos-covered work clothes, and initially began to feel unwell herself in June 2014. A hospital x-ray and CT scan revealed mesothelioma to be the cause of her back pain and difficulty in breathing.
Industrial disease lawyer with Irwin Mitchell, Nicola Handley, said:
“Asbestos has long been associated with heavy industry, including sites like the York Carriageworks, but sadly, we are seeing an increasing number of people being affected who have not worked directly with asbestos.”