The Woman Working to Eradicate Asbestos

With the theme for this year's International Women's Day being #BalanceForBetter, it is industries like the removal of asbestos and hazardous materials that remain hugely male-dominated. Asbestos is still being used in building materials today, despite our knowledge of how harmful and dangerous the material is. As the gender gap of women being diagnosed with asbestos-related illness slowly getting closer to the number of men, it’s clear that further education is still needed on this subject to prevent further diagnosis.

Yvonne Waterman is the creator of the European Asbestos Forum and was also a keynote speaker at last year’s Contamination Expo Series. Yvonne is a powerful woman within the asbestos industry, as she is happy to use her legal expertise to expose the use of asbestos and ensure the safety of all future build projects. Women like Yvonne Waterman are paving the way for women within the industry, and the Contamination Expo Series is proud to have her return as a Keynote speaker to this year’s event.

We had the chance to get more in-depth with the work Yvonne has done, and what she wants to achieve with future work.

Could you tell us a bit about your current work?

Yvonne: I specialise in asbestos liability issues in the widest sense of the word, both the legal and the communication aspects as they are frequently interwoven. At present, Waterman Legal Consultancy is engaged in liability issues that arise from asbestos in products. It is very satisfying work to uncover the truth and to help clients achieve justice. Also, as the founder of the European Asbestos Forum Foundation, I try to bring all kinds of professionals together across borders and sectors during international conferences. They learn about asbestos awareness and state of the art knowledge from each other. Putting very different professions together can lead to surprising insights and happy outcomes. Sharing really does make stronger in the fight against asbestos.

Could you tell us about your background/what led you into working in the asbestos field?

Yvonne: When I was writing a Ph.D. thesis on comparative employers’ liability law for occupational accidents and diseases PhD in the Nineties, I was struck with astonishment how many people die from asbestos-related diseases and how little society is aware of these deaths. Until then, I had never heard about asbestos; and yet it still is the prime cause of occupational deaths. Delving more into the subject, I was repeatedly warned off by my professors, who saw no professional or scientific perspective in this ‘peculiar’ interest of mine. They didn’t relate to my argument that asbestos is a very real danger that is all around us, It just made me more stubborn. I started attending asbestos conferences all over the world to learn more; and the more I learned, the more certain I became that asbestos is a subject we must deal with!

What drives you to do the work that you do?

Yvonne: I have a strong sense of justice, so working in the field of law comes naturally. One of the more satisfying aspects of my work is seeing how asbestos removal work is done up close. I have almost finished a case where the owner of an asbestos removal company demanded, as a dutiful employer, to be allowed to create a scientifically proven safer workplace for his asbestos removal workers than regulations permitted, yet the authorities tried to shut him down repeatedly for non-compliance of the regulations. When you successfully throw yourself practically into the company gates to prevent this, save the company, save the jobs and the authorities make a 180-degree turn then happy days. Now there is every expectation that the legislation will be adjusted accordingly, permitting other asbestos removal employers to also provide healthier workplaces in the same way.

What plans do you have for the future?

Yvonne: I want to provide a broader base for the European Asbestos Forum Foundation. It needs more sponsors! That is the main aim of the European Asbestos Forum. At present, I am thinking of setting up asbestos awareness classes in trade schools. Because asbestos is just a word to the present generation: young electricians wouldn’t recognise asbestos boards if you hit them over the head with it. Awareness of asbestos dangers is not reaching the people who need it the most. So improving awareness and reaching out to professionals, especially young ones, is a major goal. People often think that asbestos is a legacy of the past, but while exposure to asbestos continues, we are seeing more young persons becoming ill. Eradication and denaturalisation of asbestos need to be the long-term goals.