How Much Should 1950s Employers Have Known About Asbestos Risks?


Every employer should nowadays appreciate that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. As a High Court ruling showed, however, knowledge of the risks has evolved over time and, in a personal injury context, it is not the state of understanding today but decades ago that is often most relevant.

The case concerned a man who died of asbestos-related lung cancer more than 60 years after he was engaged in construction work at a school. Prior to his death, he described sweeping up asbestos-laden dust and being in close proximity to others who were cutting up asbestos sheets. His widow subsequently lodged a personal injury claim against the company that employed him at the time.

Ruling on the matter, the Court found elements of the man’s account of events in the 1950s implausible. Memories, it noted, are fallible over such an expanse of time and he gave his account when he was already unwell and after being informed of his gloomy prognosis. On the balance of probabilities, the Court concluded that his exposure to asbestos whilst working at the school was light and intermittent.

The Court noted that it is common knowledge today that exposure to even tiny amounts of asbestos is extremely dangerous. However, such knowledge could not, with the benefit of hindsight, be imported to employers in the 1950s. What mattered was the extent to which asbestos risks should have been appreciated by a reasonable employer at the time of the man’s exposure.

The Court found that a reasonable employer, keeping abreast of relevant information available in the 1950s, could not reasonably have foreseen that there was a significant risk of injury arising from light and intermittent exposure to asbestos. Even permissible levels of asbestos exposure set in the 1970s were far in excess of the levels to which the man was probably exposed.

Given the low level of exposure and the state of knowledge at the relevant time, the company was not to be criticised for failing to give warnings or take precautions against breathing in asbestos dust. Whilst expressing overwhelming sympathy for the widow and other members of the man’s family, the Court was driven to the conclusion that liability on the company’s part had not been established.

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