Asbestos risk in hospitals and other public buildings

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It is over 20 years since the UK banned the manufacture and use of all asbestos in 1999.

However, asbestos was used extensively throughout the UK building industry before it was banned. This means that any homes or public buildings (including hospitals, schools, libraries, and offices) constructed or refurbished before this date may still contain deadly asbestos.

There is a genuine risk that in these older buildings, the asbestos is deteriorating with age and could be harmful to the public’s health if it is disturbed (e.g. during building work).

A report ‘Bridging the Asbestos Safety Gap’ suggests there are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK. And much of the asbestos can be found in over 1.5 million public buildings – exposing many people to the potential dangers of asbestos every day.

According to the report, nurses and teachers are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma than the general UK population.

Our experience bears this out as specialist asbestos disease solicitors. Increasingly, we are being approached by healthcare workers, including nurses and doctors, schoolteachers, teaching assistants, and admin workers diagnosed with mesothelioma after working in ageing public buildings.

Novum Law was recently instructed by a nurse who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma after having worked in NHS hospitals for 30 years. She started her career as a trainee nurse as soon as she left school and described seeing asbestos in poor condition in the hospitals where she worked.

Another case we are dealing with is for the family of a doctor who worked in several hospitals during his career. He left the hospital environment to set up his own GP practice and sadly, just as he reached retirement age, was diagnosed with mesothelioma and tragically died.

Such is the concern about the issue of asbestos in hospitals that in 2018, the Cardiff MP, Jo Stevens, then the Chair of the All-Party Group of Occupational Health and Safety, raised the issue of asbestos exposure in the healthcare sector in Parliament.

She argued that the Government needs to ensure that every NHS Trust knows the extent of asbestos present on their premises and to have a plan for dealing with it. She further commented that this must now be a priority. That same year, the BBC reported that nine out of 10 NHS Trusts have hospitals containing asbestos.

Highlighting the issue of mesothelioma in healthcare

Last year, Liz Darlison, Head of Services for the leading mesothelioma charity, Mesothelioma UK, voiced her concerns about the issue of asbestos exposure and its risk to healthcare workers and other employees who work in public buildings. She said:

“We’re learning that mesothelioma doesn’t just affect people who worked in areas typically associated with asbestos exposure, such as the construction or shipping industries. People are exposed to asbestos in many of our public buildings, such as hospitals and schools.”

Mesothelioma UK published a report on the issue in 2020. The Healthcare Staff Mesothelioma Asbestos Guidance Study (MAGS) was carried out by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The study was funded by Mesothelioma UK, together with donations from the family and friends of the late Dr Mags Portman, a pioneer in the fight to prevent and control HIV, who died of mesothelioma in 2019.

Recommendations from the study included the need to:

  • Get a more accurate picture of the extent of mesothelioma among healthcare staff
  • Raise awareness of asbestos risk and add it to the mandatory training for new NHS team members of NHS staff
  • Give special consideration to how a mesothelioma diagnosis is given to healthcare workers, remembering that they are a patient first, and a professional, second

Speaking following the publication of MAGS, Professor Angela Tod, Division of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield, commented:

“MAGS provides valuable insight into the nature of asbestos exposure for people working in healthcare environments. It also indicates we are currently underestimating the numbers of people who have developed mesothelioma after working in a range of health-related occupations. We hope MAGS will inform future action to reduce risk of asbestos exposure and improve the care of healthcare workers who develop mesothelioma.”

A ‘ticking timebomb’ in public buildings

Given the significant amounts of asbestos still present in public buildings in the UK, we must raise awareness of its dangers and the risk it presents to healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, porters, maintenance staff and administrators, as well as teachers, librarians, office workers, and countless others.

Mesothelioma is entirely preventable, which makes its diagnosis even more heart-breaking. It is only through awareness and education that we can hope to avoid unnecessary asbestos exposure and halt this dreadful disease in its tracks.

Phillip Gower is a specialist asbestos disease solicitor based in our Cardiff office. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, Novum Law has the experience and expertise to help you make a compensation claim. Call us on 0800 884 0777 or email info@novumlaw.com.

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