Some 2,544 people in Britain died from mesothelioma in 2020, a rise of 6% on the previous year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Mesothelioma is a fatal form of cancer that takes many years to develop following the inhalation of asbestos fibres. The number of annual deaths in the UK has increased steeply in the past 50 years, with many deaths attributed to past occupational exposures because of the widespread use of asbestos during 1950-1980.
Although the number of mesothelioma deaths in the UK 2020 was higher than in 2019, the death rate was similar to the average of 2,523 deaths per year seen over the previous eight years.
According to the HSE’s latest mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2,058 men and 459 women died of the disease in 2020, increases of 6% and 7% respectively. Both rates were consistent with projections.
However, the HSE said that some of the people who died may not have passed away had the Covid-19 pandemic not occurred, suggesting that their condition may have been exacerbated by the virus.
Cancer risks at work
UK mesothelioma deaths among working age adults were decreasing, the UK’s health and safety regulator noted, with the disease mainly affecting those over the age of 75.
Diagnoses also appeared to be decreasing. There were 1,910 new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in 2020, compared with 2,025 new cases in 2019.
Not all people who develop the disease do so as a direct result of handling asbestos, HSE warned. Around 15% of male and the majority of female deaths were likely to have been caused by asbestos, but not because they had been in direct contact with it.
The male death rate by region was highest in the North East of England and lowest in London. The professions most associated with mesothelioma included carpenters, plumbers and electricians, as well as occupations often associated with the shipbuilding industry, notably metal plate workers.
The HSE has also published work-related ill health statistics for 2021. Around 1.7 million workers had a work-related illness last year, either a new or long-standing condition.
Every loss of life is a tragedy, and we are committed to making workplaces safer and holding employers to account for their actions, as part of our mission to protect people and places.” – Sarah Albon, HSE
Half of work-related ill health cases were related to stress, depression or anxiety, 28% were due to musculoskeletal disorders and 22% other types of illness. The rate of work-related ill health per 100,000 workers increased in 2020/21, from 4,830 to 4,990.
Some 123 workers were killed in work-related accidents between April 2021 and March 2022, a reduction of 22 on the previous year. The industries with the highest deaths were construction (30), agriculture, forestry, and fishing (22), and manufacturing (22); though agriculture, forestry and fishing has the highest rate of fatal injury per 100,000 workers.
The three most common causes of fatal injuries were falling from height (29), being struck by a moving vehicle (23), and being struck by a moving object (18).
HSE’s chief executive Sarah Albon said: “While Great Britain is one of the safest countries in the world to work, today’s figures show we must continue to ensure safety remains a priority. Every loss of life is a tragedy, and we are committed to making workplaces safer and holding employers to account for their actions, as part of our mission to protect people and places.”
Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at occupational health and safety advocate IOSH, said: “When seeking to protect workers and prevent harm, this reduction in the number of workplace fatal injuries is no cause for celebration. The bare fact is that 123 people lost their life in 2021-22 because of a workplace accident, and we can’t forget the unimaginable pain and impact caused to their loved ones, friends and colleagues.
“This is not acceptable and we are calling on businesses to review how they protect their workforce, to ensure they leave no stone unturned in their efforts to prevent workplace accidents, injuries and ill health.”