When we decided to launch the ‘What does asbestos mean to me?’ campaign, which runs alongside Global Asbestos Awareness Week this week (#2021GAAW), I was asked to answer the question and I couldn’t help but get reflective.
I’ve never met anyone that dreams of going into the asbestos industry when they grow up and I was no different. In fact, I quite fancied being a mechanic and looked into apprenticeships. The money was so low it put me off and I ended working in a solicitor’s office. I stayed for around two years and started to feel restless. I decided I didn’t want to work in an office anymore. I wanted a job where I would be out on the road and visiting different places.
I came across an advert in the local newspaper for an apprenticeship with an asbestos company. It appealed as it was scientific work and meant I would be working on site, so I applied. I was over the moon to find out that I had been accepted for an interview.
Then the unimaginable happened… I was involved in a motorcycle accident and was really badly injured. I was in hospital for two months and had to cancel the interview. Around a year later, after several operations and physiotherapy, I was able to return to work at the solicitors and fate stepped in…
The same advert appeared in the paper again!
I contacted the company and they remembered me. I got another interview and was offered the job as a trainee there and then. Over the next few years, I learned everything from working in the labs to air monitoring.
Fast forward a few years, I joined ATAC, the UK’s leading association for the asbestos testing and consultancy industry and I ran it for three years.
During my tenure, I actively lobbied government about the presence of asbestos in schools and campaigned for better management of asbestos in schools.
This was a big moment for me, despite me having been working in the asbestos industry for around 12 years at that point, as it was the first time I had really seen first-hand the human impact of asbestos.
As part of my campaigning, I met Michael Lees. Michael was an ex RAF Pilot who had lost his wife Gina who was 51 to mesothelioma, a cancer brought on by exposure to asbestos. Like hundreds of others, Michael’s wife was a teacher, as well as a wife and mother to young children. It turns out that Michael’s wife had been exposed to asbestos by simply pinning up schoolwork onto display boards with asbestos fibres in them. To see how this family had been torn apart and children left without a mother really affected me and drove me on to campaign further. I became heavily involved with the Asbestos in Schools Steering Group at a national level and met with many MPs over the years.
I’ve also met lots of other people with heartbreaking stories, such as Mavis Nye, an active mesothelioma campaigner who is living with the disease today after washing her husband’s work clothes saw her exposed to asbestos. I’ve also attended Meso Warrior support groups for people affected by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. I’ve met the children, husbands and wives who have been left behind and are deeply affected.
Asbestos in 2021
Sadly, not much has changed and asbestos is still present in lots of schools today as the buildings are more than 20 years old.
Asbestos is not an ‘old problem’ it is very much still prevalent in today’s world and kills around 5,000 people a year. And it will continue to do so as long as people don’t know about it and how dangerous it is.
Asbestos was a popular building material up until it was completely banned in 1999. This means that any building, such as schools, hospitals, factories and more, that were built before 1999 could contain asbestos.
Asbestosis and mesothelioma can take a long time to present themselves, with people not experiencing symptoms until 10 – 50 years after they have inhaled the fibres.
So, in my view, we need to see more change. We need to see more people talking about asbestos and we need to start taking it seriously to save lives.
In our bid to raise awareness and educate people on the dangers of asbestos, we have also written a book to guide businesses through the process of dealing with asbestos in their workplace. Order your FREE copy here.