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The history of asbestos in Scotland & the evolution of asbestos law



When a doctor visits a working-class home he should be content to sit on a three-legged stool, if there isn’t a gilded chair, and he should take time for his examination; and to the questions recommended by Hippocrates, he should add one more – What is your occupation?”
Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714)

Scotland’s Asbestos Legacy

Scotland holds a significant place in the history of asbestos, having developed its industry early in the 1800s. Asbestos was thought of as a ‘wonder’ product. It is a natural fibre with many useful properties including use as a strengthener and as a heat resistant substance.

The first companies to develop asbestos products were established in the 1870s and Scottish entrepreneurs were amongst the first businessmen to introduce the mineral to the masses. By 1885, there were numerous asbestos manufacturers and distributors in Glasgow, with the number of companies involved in the production of asbestos products increasing further by the turn of the century. By 1914, there were more than 60 asbestos manufacturers throughout Scotland, however, Glasgow, remained the epicentre of the asbestos revolution.

One of the biggest asbestos factories in the UK, Turner & Newall, opened its doors in Dalmuir, Scotland in 1938 and employed both men and women to manufacture asbestos-cement products to be used in the construction industry. Big time asbestos players, Cape Asbestos and the Marinite Co. Ltd were soon to follow and opened factories in Glasgow to produce further asbestos products such as asbestos panelling.

Scotland’s industrial heartland was in its biggest city, Glasgow, where the famous Clydeside shipyards saw significant growth from their success in the shipbuilding and engineering industries and was responsible for 25% of the world’s ships including the Cunarder and The Queen Elizabeth II.

It was here that the asbestos panels, manufactured by Cape and Marinite, enjoyed huge demand and were soon to be in every ship that sailed from the Clydeside ports.

However, the demand for asbestos products did not stop at the shipyards of Glasgow. Building contractors and housing corporations were also major users of the product which was famed for providing heat insulation, at a low cost, and was quickly used to insulate boilers, pipes and storage heaters. The product was also rolled out as a cheap alternative for building homes and schools using asbestos insulated boards for walls and ceilings.

By the 1960s thousands upon thousands of Scotland’s trade workers were using the mineral during the course of their employment, in the construction industry. Many of those workers included laggers, joiners, plumbers, plasterers, electricians and engineers, completely ignorant to the sinister nature of the product they were working with.

Yet it is not only the workers who suffer due to asbestos exposure. Secondary exposure is an issue for all who were living in asbestos cities during the industrial boom. Washing facilities were not available at many of the construction worksites, therefore, the majority of workers will have travelled home, perhaps by bus or on foot, covered in asbestos dust, and thereafter, exposing others, in particular family members, when the dust becomes loose and airborne.

Notably, the dangers of exposure to asbestos fibres were known very early in the 1920s with the first asbestos related death being recorded in 1924. The victim was a woman called Nellie Kershaw and she had worked in one of the asbestos factories as a textile worker. At the same time, fibrosis of the lung due to inhalation of asbestos dust, was published in the British Medical Journal. Despite this, the development of the asbestos industry was allowed to continue.

70 years of reports, regulations and requirements

Following the death of Nellie Kershaw and the BMJ’s finding, the Government held an inquiry in 1930 to determine the effects of asbestos dust on the lungs and the suppression in the asbestos industry. The inquiry found that there were high levels of asbestosis amongst asbestos factory workers and legislation was recommended.

In 1932, the Asbestos Industry Regulations came into force. This was the first significant piece of legislation that aimed to control asbestos but only concentrated on the use of the mineral in factories. It did not go as far as to protect those who were exposed to the mineral outwith the factories and was heavily influenced by the asbestos manufacturers.

In 1933, a new report was published that reported on the increased deaths of workers from asbestosis but no further legislation was introduced until 1948.

In 1948, the Building (Safety, Health and Welfare) Regulations came into force and specifically referred to the use of asbestos within the building industry, in general.

In 1955, a report was published in the British Medical Journal which demonstrated the link between asbestos fibres and cancer. This report followed a growing recognition, in the medical profession, of the link between lung cancer and asbestos exposure.

In 1960, a further article was published in the British Medical Journal linking the gravest of all asbestos diseases, Mesothelioma, to asbestos fibres.

Despite the developments in medical research, the asbestos industry still enjoyed great success with the majority of the workers, if not all, being kept in the dark of the dangers. Many of the regulations put in place were inadequately policed and enforced and therefore failed to protect those who were most at risk.

In 1961, the Shipbuilding and Ship Repairing Regulations came into force and specifically governed the use of asbestos in the shipbuilding industry.

Despite these various regulations being introduced, there was still no stringent requirement regarding the prevention of the inhalation of asbestos fibres, in the UK.

In 1967, the industry introduced a voluntary ban on the import of blue asbestos, also known as Crocidolite.

In 1969, the Asbestos Regulations 1969 were introduced and came into force in May 1970. For the first time, guidance was given as to the quantitative limits for asbestos dust exposure and the duties that were imposed on employers were far wider than ever before. The regulations applied to all factories, building contractors and construction engineering. Stringent duties were placed on employers to ensure that they prevented the inhalation of asbestos fibres. Yet, many workers were still failed by their employers in terms of personal protective equipment.

In 1974, the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced and implemented further duties on employers to protect their employees.

In 1983, the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations were enacted which covered the most dangerous of jobs such as asbestos stripping or removal.

In 1985, the import of brown and blue asbestos was banned.

In 1987, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 were introduced which imposed further tightening of dust limits and controls regarding the use of asbestos at work.

In 1995, the UK’s largest asbestos manufacturer, Turner & Newall, sold the last of its asbestos businesses.

In 1999, the use of asbestos was finally banned in the UK, 75 years following the first recorded asbestos related death.

Damning statistics

HSE mortality statistics show that, in the UK alone, around 100 people per week die from asbestos cancers and diseases. The mortality rate from asbestos diseases in Glasgow is one of the highest in the UK but you would be wrong to presume that the asbestos legacy is a historical issue. The sheer volume of asbestos used in Glasgow, in particular, is such that the majority of prominent buildings, in the city, will contain asbestos products of some sort.

Exposure to the product continues across Scotland and anyone working on a building constructed pre-2000 may be at risk of inhaling asbestos fibres, especially if undertaking intrusive work with no consideration for the potential of asbestos affecting their health. Scotland’s cities, like any city in the UK, have pockets of poorly maintained buildings and it is here that the potential for asbestos exposure is high.

Laura McCallum, Solicitor, specialising in Asbestos Litigation said: “Glasgow has a wonderful industrial history and it should be proud of its’ many achievements, but, the many hardworking men and women who helped build that history ought to have been protected from a danger that was known by their employers but that they themselves knew nothing about. The first link between asbestos fibres and asbestos disease was published back in 1924 and yet no stringent regulations were put in place, to protect the wider workforce, until 1969 – 45 years later and 45 years of avoidable inhalation of asbestos fibres. Of the regulations that were in force, prior to 1969, very little was done to police/enforce those and one can only presume that was to allow the industry to develop further to the detriment of the workforce. It is only just that the victims and their families, are provided access to justice and are fully compensated for their pain and suffering”

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If you or someone you know has been affected by asbestos disease and would like to talk to someone about what you can do about it, please get in touch.

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Glasgow Edinburgh Inverness Elgin Thurso Shetland
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