The human cost of mesothelioma: the case for conscientious compliance

Recently my biography of my father’s life was published. This account was to celebrate his life and legacy. What I didn’t focus on, was what caused his death. He died from pleural mesothelioma; a lung cancer caused from exposure to asbestos.

Now that the story of his amazing and inspirational life is out, I can now talk about his death that came too soon. My father had worked his whole life in the building services industry and had spent time in boiler rooms and other spaces that may have contained asbestos. Asbestos dust, invisible to the naked eye, can lie dormant in your lungs for thirty to forty years eventually turning into a lethal lung cancer called mesothelioma.

Below are some facts and figures relating to asbestos. But for me, I want to talk about the human experience. My father started his employment age 17, in 1963, twenty-two years before the first laws came into place banning the import of blue and brown asbestos into the UK. As a heating and ventilation apprentice working on government buildings, he would have had many instances where he may have come into contact with asbestos.

Later in his professional career he lectured at national training centres and delivered training including on the dangers of asbestos. Throughout his career, advising his employers on their building assets and improvements plans he raised concerns and would often fight hard to justify works to ensure premises were safe for those using the buildings.

When he was diagnosed, it was strange for me as I was responsible for compliance training in my organisation, and as a housing association, asbestos training was high on the list of compliance priorities.

Compliance training, done well, and implemented effectively, is an important strand of an organisation’s heath and safety and risk management strategy, but it is not the only strand. Robust policies and practices around managing building stock including things like holding an asbestos register, ensuring sufficient investment is made, and decisions are actually made and not put off, all play their part.

Training, and other essential activities to support the health and safety of people should never be considered as ‘tick-box’ exercises. I’ve seen first-hand the pain and suffering that this cancer, forming in the lining of the lungs can cause, and that changes the way you think and act.

Organisations talk in terms of risk management and needing to limit liability for claims against them by former employees. The truth is that for every claim, there’s a person who has gone through intense suffering, and a family that has had an untimely loss. It would be helpful, perhaps, to contemplate these real human outcomes, and working proactively to prevent them, rather than focusing on mitigating the damage. No amount of compensation can make-up for the early loss of a life. My father died aged sixty-nine, two years into his retirement. He was enjoying fishing trips and travels. He was fit, healthy and full of life. His wife, seven children and twenty-six grandchildren miss him. His friends miss him. He did not take up vacant space in this world. He was a contributor, a giver, a doer.

Reading his diaries as I put together his biography, I was struck how many happy memories he had from his various employers, enjoying the professional challenges and the great camaraderie with his colleagues. It seemed a bittersweet irony that the joys from his distinguished professional career were now overshadowed by the fact that it was these same employers that may have contributed to his demise.

I hope that anyone that has an impact on safety in terms of buildings, whether directly or indirectly, can fulfil their responsibilities to their utmost ability, to safeguard health and human life against invisible dangers, with due care and regard, and never see it as simple as ticking a box.


Taken from the UK’s Health & Safety Executive Government website:  

Asbestos is the greatest cause of work-related deaths in Great Britain. Around 5,000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases which typically take decades to develop and cannot be cured.

It is made up of tiny, invisible fibres that can be breathed in or rest on your clothes.

Asbestos was used in many industries and buildings until it was banned in 1999. However, while asbestos continues to be safely removed, much of this material is still in place.

This means people who work in older buildings could still be exposed to asbestos fibres today if asbestos is not managed effectively, and is damaged or disturbed.

Buildings constructed after 2000 are unlikely to contain asbestos.

For more information on the risks and causes of mesothelioma go to Cancer Research UK



I help organisations manage their training, via systems for reporting including compliance reporting. Do you need help? Drop me an email for a conversation at rachel@talentstorm.co.uk or book a time here

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