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Asbestos: Glasgow

Glasgow, the largest and most industrialised city in Scotland, has a history associated with shipbuilding, trading, and manufacturing.

During the 1890s, Glasgow was considered one of the richest and largest cities in the world.  It became known as the “Second City of the Empire” and enjoyed substantial growth from the success of heavy industry such as engineering and shipbuilding.

Glasgow was also one of the largest shipbuilding cities in the world, responsible for the construction of around 25% of the world’s ships. Tobacco trading was also a major industry in Glasgow, with the wealthy business owners being known as 'Tobacco Lords', and having considerable wealth which permitted them to build and occupy some of the largest homes in and around Glasgow.

Around this time, asbestos was considered a relatively new building material which many architects specified in the more expensive properties, mainly because of its' ability to "prevent the spread of fire".  Consequently, many of the wealthy traders in Glasgow were able to afford to install asbestos in their private homes and commercial premises.  In many respects, asbestos was seen as a beneficial addition to a property, and architects were keen to specify its use as a result.

Like many other cities across the world, the headquarters of the large businesses, council buildings, and public facilities all 'benefited' from this 'wonder material'.  The architects were keen to use it because it would also, in their view, prove that the construction of the buildings they designed were more robust and could withstand the effects of fire to a greater extent.

Many people believe these (now) listed buildings to be mainly built of stone, wood, and plaster, but the reality is that they had asbestos inserted in various locations during alterations, during the lifetime of the building, and specifically concerning heating systems and the installation of electrical circuitry.

In addition, however, considerable profit was to be made from supplying asbestos materials, and its uses became very widespread.  Asbestos products were created to form construction materials such as insulation products, wrappings (around pipes and boilers), flooring surfaces, paper-backing, flanges, rope gaskets, and window packers.

In fact, the material was used in products which one could argue were highly unlikely to benefit from having asbestos.

Asbestos was also used extensively in products like brake linings, ship engines, moving parts of machinery, and frankly anything which could justify its use. Heating systems, ducts, risers, electrical circuitry, and roofing surfaces were all considered to have a necessity for the addition of asbestos fibres.

Such was the demand for asbestos in Glasgow that manufacturers of the material were situated in the city, including the huge Turner & Newall factory in Clydebank which was a significant feature in the town, as well as being a large-scale employer.

Glasgow was also a considerable provider of munitions and other materials for the war effort and aside from building ships and industrial products, asbestos-lined suits, masks, gloves, and other items were manufactured in Clydebank. 

It was inevitable that the productive capacity of Clydeside industry, especially shipbuilding, steel, and engineering, should be directed overwhelmingly towards the war effort.  Glasgow became the centre of massive munitions output and the workforce was placed under extraordinary pressure to ensure that the steady flow of armaments and military equipment was maintained.

Locally, there are stories of workers returning home with dust-covered clothing, and the buses they used to journey home in also being used also for taking children to and from school.

The sheer volume of asbestos used in Glasgow is such that most of the prominent buildings in the city will contain asbestos products of some sort.

There is also substantial evidence of asbestos waste around rivers, in allotments, former industrial-use sites, and land formerly used for housing, education, or medical buildings.  The mortality rate from asbestos cancers in Glasgow was therefore somewhat higher than in many other parts of the UK.  See Page 10 of the HSE link here.

The seemingly historical issue of asbestos affecting workers and employees in these buildings has not diminished.  The HSE mortality statistics show that around 100 people a week die from asbestos cancers in the UK alone.  These deaths are not historical in terms of their attachment to heavy industry.  In other words, despite the legacy of asbestos, exposure to the product continues.

Anyone working on any pre-2000 constructed building is at risk from inhaling asbestos fibres, especially if they undertake intrusive work with no consideration for the potential of asbestos fibre release affecting their health.

Asbestos in construction advert

Modern-day Glasgow is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with fantastic shopping and sporting facilities, bustling restaurants, and some of the best entertainment venues around.  It is now the 5th largest city in the UK, however, it has pockets of poorly maintained industrial and residential properties where the potential for finding unsafe asbestos products is high. 

This is particularly true where vacant land has formerly been used for the manufacture of asbestos, and also where buildings that had asbestos in their construction were demolished and simply crushed into the soil to make way for future construction.

In relation to the most recent projections specifically concerning mortality rates, we haven’t yet reached a peak in the UK, and in many respects, we may not reach that peak for some years.  Clearly, the risks associated with asbestos have not gone away, and it is still the largest industrial killer by far.  

The message is simple; comply with legislation, make sure you obtain a Refurbishment Survey for works in advance of starting any project for a pre-2000 constructed building and make sure you have received formal Asbestos Awareness Training (a legal requirement across the whole of the construction sector).

For more information, contact us for a confidential discussion on any project you are working on.

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