Asbestos dangers still not fully known

  • We still have much to learn about the dangers of asbestos exposure
  • Claims can be brought against organisations decades after exposure, and are very difficult to defend
  • Past exposures could result in claims, but there are simple steps customers can take to protect themselves in the future

Cholangiocarcinoma (CC) has grabbed the attention of medical researchers, who have suggested there could be a link between the disease and asbestos exposure.

CC is a cancer of the bile ducts, which is rarely curable and rapidly lethal. Around 1,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the UK, and disease rates have been rising worldwide for several decades.

Further research is required before an asbestos-related connection is confirmed, or ruled out, but researchers are already suggesting additional health precautions are taken for anyone with a history of asbestos exposure.

Andrew Else, Technical Claims Manager at Zurich Insurance, says: “It is an interesting potential development and only time will tell if it will result in an influx of claims in the future. The fact that this research has emerged, highlights the potential for other asbestos-related diseases to still be discovered, and customers need to remain alert to the dangers of asbestos-related risks.”

The trouble with asbestos

There are more than a dozen medical conditions currently associated with asbestos, and researchers continue to investigate its association with other diseases.

The difficulty with many of these conditions is the long latency period before symptoms appear. Mesothelioma, for example, a disease now synonymous with asbestos exposure, typically takes 20 to 50 years to develop in most victims.

In 1971, the Court of Appeal allowed the first successful personal injury claim for negligent exposure to asbestos. Since then, it has become increasingly possible to bring such claims, as legal precedent, and our knowledge of the associated risks, has developed. In the last 15 years, asbestos injury claims have become a hot topic for the insurance sector and its customers.

Andrew says: “The claims we are seeing now are from people allegedly exposed to asbestos as far back as the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

“There are conflicting stories about when asbestos-related injuries are going to peak. I think the likelihood is that claims will continue to be received for the next couple of decades at least.

“Unfortunately, we can’t prevent past exposures from resulting in claims, but there are certainly things our customers can do to protect themselves going forward.”

Not just old buildings

Relative to other countries, the UK was very late in outlawing the use of asbestos. Although the first findings of asbestos-related diseases were published as far back as 1927, it was not until 1999 that the UK successfully banned the import and use of all types of asbestos.

While new uses of the material are prohibited, existing asbestos is permitted, and should not cause harm as long as it remains intact, is in good condition, and is undisturbed.

For this reason, buildings erected or renovated prior to 2000 have a significant risk of containing asbestos, as the material was commonly used in insulation, ceiling tiles and the lagging of pipes.

Michelle Fisher, Senior Claims Handler at Zurich Insurance, says: “I would imagine most customers have carried out asbestos surveys, so will be aware of the risks within their buildings.

“One of the biggest problems with these claims is determining whether an area did in fact contain asbestos. So one of the first questions we ask is whether any asbestos surveys are available.”

If customers have not commissioned a survey, or cannot locate the documentation, it is strongly advised to have one commissioned.

Approaching asbestos safely

Asbestos regulations demand that anyone at risk of encountering the substance on the job should be trained in the proper handling of the material. Nobody should approach asbestos without proper advice and assistance.

There are conflicting stories about when asbestos-related injuries are going to peak. I think the likelihood is that this trend is going to continue for the next couple of decades at least

 Andrew Else, Technical Claims Manager at Zurich Insurance

Michelle says: “As it is the fibres that cause harm, generally, asbestos is never a problem unless it is removed or damaged. Anybody who is thinking of handling asbestos should always engage specialist contractors, who will be qualified to deal with it safely.”

The Health and Safety Executive has published helpful guidance for anybody who has concerns about asbestos, with topics ranging from its identification, to the laws regulating its use.

The importance of record keeping

As claims are being seen as much as 50 years after alleged exposures, crucial evidence has often long-since been destroyed. This can make asbestos-related claims very difficult to defend.

“Without evidence, there is little we can do to defend these cases, and that is a major hurdle we regularly face,” says Michelle. “Good record keeping is therefore vital for customers wishing to manage these risks.”

Historical insurance information and any asbestos surveys, are both important records to retain. But every case is markedly different, and any information can prove crucial in defending a claim.

Andrew says: “Access to witnesses is always very useful. Somebody who was in a position of authority at the time of the alleged exposure, who can comment on the nature of the claimant’s employment and the environment they worked in, can be extremely useful in helping us to investigate a claim. So retaining ex-employees’ contact details can be very beneficial.

“Also, many claimants will have worked in similar roles at other organisations, so the alleged exposure could have occurred in any number of places. Retaining some record of where employees have come from and what sort of work they did, for example, can be helpful in at least potentially sharing liability with other organisations, if not rebutting the claim completely.

“As the circumstances can vary greatly, it is difficult to be prescriptive about the exact information to retain and for how long. But, certainly so far as health and safety records are concerned, the longer the better is certainly the key to managing these risks.”