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Asbestos Case Focuses on Chemistry Lab Heat Mats Phased Out 50 Years Ago

Anyone who worked in a chemistry lab or who was at school more than 50 years ago is likely to remember the ubiquitous asbestos mats on which Bunsen burners rested. In a sad case that vividly evoked the past, the High Court considered whether their presence can give rise to employer liability in the 21st century.

The case concerned a man who worked as an NHS hospital lab technician between 1949 and 1960. He was 86 in 2019 when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer almost always associated with asbestos exposure. Following his death, the executors of his estate launched a personal injury claim against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Ruling on the matter, the Court found that a soft and friable variety of asbestos mat was in use in the lab at the time, which would have given off particles of asbestos on handling. As a result, the man would have been exposed intermittently to very low quantities of asbestos, marginally above background levels. Even such modest exposure would, however, have materially increased the risk of him developing mesothelioma in later life.

The Court noted that it was recognised as long ago as 1938 that asbestos dust is highly dangerous in an industrial environment. At that time, however, concern was focused on shipbuilding yards, power stations and other workplaces where asbestos was habitually handled. It was not until 1965 that the link between mesothelioma and asbestos was identified and only in the mid-1970s was the use of asbestos millboard for heat protection in labs and elsewhere phased out.

In dismissing the executors' claim, the Court noted that asbestos heat mats were at the relevant time still being used in many everyday settings, including schools. Had the man's then employer sought expert advice, it would probably have been told that there was no need to be concerned about any risk of asbestos-related injury arising from their continued use.

Given the man's minimal level of exposure, it could not be said that the employer should have been aware that he was at significant risk of asbestos-related injury. Measured against the state of medical knowledge at the time, such injury was not reasonably foreseeable and the employer had not breached the duty of care it owed him. Whilst expressing the greatest sympathy for his family, the Court concluded that the claim had to fail on the facts.

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