6 February 2020 | Comment | Article by Lauren Bull

Professions not usually associated with a risk of asbestos exposure

Could you have been exposed to asbestos?

Certain occupations are known to have been high-risk for asbestos exposure, including construction workers, carpenters, electricians, power station and shipyard workers. These workers often came into direct contact with asbestos in the form of asbestos lagging, asbestos insulation board and asbestos cement. However, asbestos has a number of desirable physical properties which meant that it was also used in a number of other trades. It is strong, flexible, non-flammable, flame retardant and a fantastic thermal and electrical insulator. This means that unfortunately, workers in several unlikely occupations may have also been at risk of exposure.

Hairdressers & Barbers

The hair salon, for many of us, is a place to pamper and give our hair some well-needed TLC. It has however, been suggested that in some hair salons, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a risk of exposure to asbestos for hairdressers and barbers who may have been using products containing asbestos.   

In the UK, there have been reports of former hairdressers who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions. It is understood that asbestos was a component in hand-held and over-the-head (hood) hairdryers, where it was used in the heat shields of the hairdryer to protect the heating element. The wear and tear of hairdryers containing asbestos could cause the fibres to crumble and break, exposing both employees and customers alike to asbestos dust.

Surgeons  

From the 1940s onwards, it is documented that surgeons used asbestos thread to close wounds and incisions. The flexibility and strength of asbestos thread made it suitable for surgeons to use in the course of their work. In particular, it was relatively common for asbestos thread to be used in heart and lung surgery. It is likely that surgeons working at this time would have been exposed to asbestos fibres released as a result of handling the thread.  

Bakers

It has also been suggested that bakers using old bread-baking ovens might have been exposed to asbestos throughout the course of their work. It is thought that asbestos was used to line old bread-baking ovens as this would ensure that the flames remained within the oven and did not damage the oven itself. It is possible that individuals working with these ovens on a daily basis could have been exposed to asbestos fibres loosened as a result of the extreme temperatures within the oven.

Firefighters

Asbestos has tremendous flame retardant, non-flammable properties making it ideal for use by firefighters. The use of asbestos was completely banned in the UK in 1999 however, prior to this, and most commonly between the 1950s – 1980s, firefighters would have been at risk of asbestos exposure. Sadly, a number of firefighters have gone on to develop asbestos-related conditions.

In the early years, firefighters’ protective clothing (suits, gloves etc.) contained asbestos. As a result of the extreme temperatures firefighters are exposed to, their suits would have degraded over time, causing some of the asbestos fibres to become loose.

Further, firefighters would use asbestos blankets to put out chimney fires. Again, repeated use of asbestos blankets and extreme temperatures would have caused the blankets to degrade and as a result, they would have been fibrous and dusty to handle.

Sadly, it is possible that the respiratory protection provided to firefighters between the 1950s and 1980s was insufficient for purpose and as a result, firefighters may have inhaled airborne asbestos fibres.

Training exercises were often carried out in buildings containing asbestos-lagged pipework and asbestos insulation board which put firefighters at even further risk of exposure.

It should be the case that firefighters today are at lower risk of asbestos exposure. There are now protective measures in place both in terms of asbestos removal activities, required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2002, and personal protective equipment. However, it is important for those in the profession to remain aware of the risk of asbestos exposure. Many buildings still contain asbestos and any structural damage to the building caused by fire may cause asbestos fibres to be released into the air.  Notably, there has been concern raised for the emergency services who responded to the Grenfell Tower fire as the tower block was thought to contain asbestos.

The Hugh James asbestos team have been successful in securing settlement in a number of mesothelioma claims where exposure to asbestos has been difficult to pinpoint in the first instance.

If you have any questions regarding asbestos exposure or a related medical condition, please visit our asbestos claims page for further information.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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