Asbestos in the workplace: a difficult legacy

Once used nearly universally for its fire-retardant qualities, asbestos - and the illnesses it causes - has become a major issue for the industries which used and produced it as well as individuals who contracted various diseases and cancers as a result of exposure in the workplace. Journalist Andrew Bibby examines the state of asbestos litigation today, and how workers and employers are facing up to the problem.

HEBDEN BRIDGE, England - This small town in the hills of northern England is today a popular tourist destination. But at one time it was at the heart of the industrial revolution, with mills producing woollen and cotton cloth.

Unfortunately for some, Hebden Bridge also had a mill manufacturing asbestos products. Though long closed, its legacy lingers on in the asbestos waste dumps now sealed and abandoned, as well as in the ill health of many of the local residents.

A local newspaper regularly carries stories about former employees who have died from asbestos-related causes, including the cancer mesothelioma ( Note 1).

This spectre is not unique to this idyllic English town and is occurring in other parts of the world. In Slovenia, the town of Nova Gorica (like Hebden Bridge a picturesque town in the hills) was the centre of the Yugoslavian asbestos industry for over 70 years. Nova Gorica residents, concerned at the growing numbers of asbestos-related diseases, last year organized an international conference on the issue.

In other parts of the world, conditions during the heyday of the asbestos industry are equally grim. Fred Higgs, General Secretary of the Global Union federation for the chemical sector, ICEM, has drawn attention to the situation in South Africa where he says "children were employed, unprotected, in the most hazardous tasks of sorting asbestos with their bare hands and trampling it with their bare feet."

A difficult legacy

Asbestos was once considered the 'miracle mineral' of the 20th century, used almost universally for its fire-retardant qualities. As is now known, however, asbestos exposure can lead to illness and death. Mesothelioma, a cancerous tumour in the membranes of the lungs, is slow to develop (typically 30-40 years after exposure to asbestos fibres) but rapidly fatal. Other cancers, including lung cancer, are associated with asbestos exposure, again after a long latency period while asbestos-linked diseases include asbestosis, which causes severe breathing difficulties and may also be fatal.

The ILO has calculated that at least 100,000 people worldwide have died from exposure to asbestos. Currently, mesothelioma annually kills about 3,000 people in the United States and perhaps 5,000 in Europe, with numbers expected to increase in coming years. In total worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people may have had their health affected by what has been called the 'asbestos epidemic'.

The question of who is liable is turning into a crisis in its own right. In many countries, victims and their families have gone to court to demand compensation, often paying high legal fees in the process.

In the United States, the latest attempt to bring together companies and insurers, with trade union and political support, to establish an adequately resourced trust fund administered by a 'court of asbestos claims' now seems to have failed to gain consensus.

US insurers and companies agreed last year to jointly contribute to a US$114 billion compensation fund. However this was still US$40 billion below the figure established during debates on a U.S. Senate bill, and was immediately criticised by US unions.

An uncertain future

For the foreseeable future, therefore, asbestos compensation in the US remains a matter of litigation, a situation that applies in other countries as well. In the United Kingdom, some uncertainty appeared to be resolved in 2002, with a judgment rejecting the argument that companies could escape liability for that workers exposed to asbestos from more than one employer.

This judgment was seen as a victory for asbestos sufferers and was estimated to cost insurers UK£6-8 billion (US$10-14 billion). Since then, however, insurers have been back in the courts, arguing for a proportionate reduction in damages where employees worked for a period for employers now defunct or insolvent.

The problem of company insolvency is a major one and has been a factor in the response to asbestos issues. Fear of company insolvency was one of the factors motivating parties in a South African case to reach an out of court settlement with a UK-based producer. In the Netherlands, the co-operation of employers, insurers and the government led to the creation of an institute for asbestos victims that acts as a mediator between employers and workers on the basis of fixed amounts for damages. In Australia, a similar initiative to create a fund for claimants in asbestos cases by the major asbestos company. This solution has been controversial, however, with recent allegations that the fund may not be able to cover the final costs of compensation.

Because of the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases, it will be many years before all past claims for compensation are resolved. But the story doesn't end here. White asbestos is still used in many parts of the world. Moreover, ILO Convention No. 162 (1968) on safety in the use of asbestos bans only certain types of asbestos, has been ratified by 27 of the ILO's 177 member States. This means that - despite the known health risks of asbestos - some people may still be working with materials whose impact may only become apparent many years from now.

The ILO is working to promote the use of its international instruments ( Convention 162 and Recommendation 172) by member States to increase the protection of workers against asbestos exposure. The aim is to protect workers and prevent the development of asbestos-related diseases that lead to human suffering and litigation. Many litigation cases result from previous exposure when ILO instruments weren't properly applied and protection was inadequate. The use of ILO instruments and approaches towards prevention and control of asbestos exposure, in combination with national policies, would intensify preventive efforts and reduce the effects of exposure.

Asbestos and safe work

"Due to strong initiatives at national, European and international level, numerous countries have banned imports and handling of asbestos, other countries are preparing bans. The total world production has decreased since the 1970s by more than 50 per cent. Nevertheless, 2 million tons of asbestos are still produced every year and it is precisely in the developing countries that consumption is on the increase."

The Conference adopted the "Dresden Declaration on the Protection of Workers Against Asbestos", the full text of which can be found in many languages at The final report of the conference will be available on the same website shortly. More technical data and ILO-related activities can be found in the keynote presentation at the conference by Dr Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO InFocus Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork), which is accessible from

Note 1: See "The Killing Mill", 31 October 2003, at