Over the last year or so, the specialist asbestos solicitors at Hugh James have noticed a decline in the number of high level exposure asbestos cases, and an increase in the number of low level exposure claims.
It can take between 10 and 60 years for an asbestos-related condition to develop following exposure to asbestos. As we move further away from the years of heavy industry in the 1950s and 1960s (power stations, steel works, working at the docks), we are noticing a decline in the number of claimants who allege heavy asbestos exposure.
In addition, asbestos-related conditions such as asbestosis or asbestos-related lung cancer only develop after years of prolonged, heavy asbestos exposure. As we move away from the years of heavy industry, we are also seeing a decline in the number of people diagnosed with these conditions.
Instead, we are being presented with a new type of claim: low level exposure mesothelioma claims. Hugh James solicitors act on behalf of many mesothelioma sufferers who suffered low level asbestos exposure during their working life. These claims present new challenges and new case law is emerging all the time surrounding the complexities of these types of claim.
Low level exposure professions
What do we mean by low level exposure?
Previously we have represented clients who suffered high levels of asbestos exposure, for example those who worked on the construction of power stations or steelworks for many years where they used asbestos materials every day. The amount of asbestos dust that they were exposed to in these types of employment was significant.
In contrast, we are now seeing an increasing number of cases where people may have been exposed to asbestos on one or two occasions, or for a short period of time. The exposure may have arisen via others working on asbestos-containing materials and may be indirect.
Hugh James act on behalf of a number of mesothelioma sufferers who worked in a variety of professions and suffered low-level exposure, with teachers, office workers and hospital staff being among the most common.
School teachers, caretakers and pupils
Most schools built before 2000 still contain asbestos in some capacity. This could include asbestos ceiling tiles, asbestos wall panels, asbestos vinyl floor tiles, corrugated asbestos roofing and asbestos insulation on pipework. In many instances schools were built before the 1980s and the asbestos materials have never been removed. As the asbestos products wear down over time, or if they are damaged in any way, the small, fine fibres released put staff and pupils at risk of breathing in the toxic dust.
Since 1980, at least 363 school teachers have died from mesothelioma and a further 165 higher education teaching professionals have also died from the disease. It is also reported that between 200 and 300 people die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos they suffered as school children.
The specialist asbestos-related disease team at Hugh James act on behalf of a number of former teachers and caretakers who suffer from mesothelioma.
You can read our previous blog all about asbestos in schools here which discusses asbestos removal v management in schools.
Like with schools, most commercial buildings built prior to 2000 will contain asbestos in some capacity, unless they have since been renovated.
Hugh James act on behalf of a number mesothelioma sufferers who were exposed to asbestos whilst working in an office environment. This exposure has usually occurred when renovation or maintenance works have been carried out in the building, releasing potentially harmful asbestos fibres into the air. For example, office workers may have been exposed to asbestos dust via maintenance undertaken on asbestos ceiling tiles. The process of repairing a damaged tile or changing a light fixture by drilling into the tile can cause the release of toxic asbestos dust into the atmosphere.
As with schools and commercial buildings, the vast majority of hospitals in the UK contain asbestos. Many of these hospitals were built when asbestos was widely imported into the UK and heavily used in construction. The lack of funding for the NHS over the years means that in most hospitals, the asbestos has never been removed. As the years go on, the asbestos containing materials begin to degrade and put the staff and patients at risk of inhaling harmful asbestos fibres. Even now, the removal of asbestos is not a priority, despite the health risks it poses to staff and patients.
Hugh James act on behalf of a number of former hospital staff who have gone on to develop mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure suffered whilst at work. In most cases, the sufferers have either undertaken maintenance themselves at the hospital, or have been present whilst maintenance was undertaken, for example on asbestos ceiling tiles or asbestos lagged pipework.
Difficulties with low level dose claims
Technically there is no dose of asbestos which is too low to cause mesothelioma i.e. there is no safe dose. In theory, someone could be exposed to one asbestos fibre and go on to develop mesothelioma, although it remains a rare type of cancer. In terms of proving that exposure to asbestos caused the mesothelioma, this does not present too many difficulties.
The difficulties lie in a) proving the presence of asbestos and b) proving that the defendant was negligent.
The first hurdle we face in low level mesothelioma claims is proving the presence of asbestos, and that it was indeed asbestos that the claimant was exposed to. When bringing a claim on behalf of a claimant who worked as a carpenter cutting up asbestos sheets on a daily basis, or a lagger who spent 10 years lagging pipework with asbestos paste, the evidence of asbestos exposure is straightforward. The claimant in these instances tends to have significant knowledge about asbestos containing materials. In contrast, low-level asbestos cases can be more complex as often the claimant cannot guarantee whether or not it was asbestos. It is important to obtain surveys of the buildings if they are still available.
The other hurdle we face is proving that the defendant had sufficient knowledge about the dangers of asbestos, that the presence of asbestos posed a risk to their employees, and that they failed to take steps to protect their employees from exposure. This can prove more difficult when the exposure suffered is low level and it is common for the defendant to argue that the exposure suffered was so low level that it did not present a foreseeable risk.
Hugh James have acted and continue to act on in behalf of a number of mesothelioma sufferers who have experienced low level exposure to asbestos.
Despite the difficulties posed by low level defendant claims, the specialist asbestos solicitors at Hugh James work tirelessly for their clients behind the scenes to gather evidence to prove their case. They are pleased to be able to bring successful claims for the vast majority of their clients.
Unfortunately, it is apparent that until asbestos is removed completely from all buildings, the risk of asbestos exposure remains a real risk for those working in the premises. Whilst we are currently seeing people who were exposed to asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s, people continue to be exposed to asbestos even now which means that sadly, people will continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma for many years to come. Until asbestos is removed from all buildings, the risk will remain.
If you or anyone you know has been diagnosed with mesothelioma (or any other asbestos-related condition) and you are uncertain how you were exposed to asbestos, it is really important to seek legal advice. The specialist solicitors at Hugh James have years of experience in dealing with asbestos claims, and will take the time to investigate all possible sources of exposure for you.