There is no question among the scientific and medical communities that asbestos is toxic to humans. Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was used prominently in products, equipment, and building materials. The substance’s innate fireproofing characteristics made it highly valuable for builders and manufacturers looking to avoid the proliferation of flames.
Unfortunately, asbestos exposure can cause a variety of illnesses including mesothelioma (which can only be caused by asbestos) and other cancers. Workplace asbestos exposure was exceedingly prevalent in the United States prior to the enactment of laws regulating the substance. In fact, over 50% of mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos on the job.
Medical conditions related to occupational asbestos exposure generally do not start cropping up until many years after the initial exposure. This is known as the latency period, or the amount of time between the initial exposure to an illness-causing substance and the actual development of a disease. For mesothelioma, the latency period can be as long as 50 years, although it usually averages out at 30 to 40.
What this means is that many workers who were exposed to asbestos at work in the distant past may still be at risk of developing life-threatening diseases in the present.
But, who is most at risk?
High-Risk Occupations for Asbestos Exposure
Across all industries between 1940 and 1979, around 27 million American workers were exposed to asbestos to some degree. Worldwide today, about 125 million workers are exposed to asbestos annually. Of course, that number is smaller in the United States because of consistent regulations that have limited asbestos’ use in the country.
Still, the prevalence of asbestos in the past made many occupations dangerous then, some of which remain dangerous to a lesser degree now.
Between 1999 and 2012, those who worked in construction made up roughly 15% of all mesothelioma deaths. Clearly, construction is an industry that was rife with asbestos and, in many cases, continues to be. Manufacturers often supplemented their building materials with asbestos to avoid fires and overheating. Many construction workers, of course, ended up working directly with these materials and being exposed to asbestos.
Specific construction occupations that with a high risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Drywall installers
- Insulation workers
- Tile setters
- Demolition crews
- General construction laborers
Again, asbestos was included in almost every type of building material (up to 4,000 different materials by some estimates). So, if you worked in construction, it was virtually impossible to avoid.
On top of that, spray-on insulation that was generally composed of 35% asbestos was frequently used on metallic structures and numerous other building materials.
Spray-on insulation products were largely banned in the 1970s, but they still posed a high risk because they often immediately produced an environment filled with airborne asbestos fibers.
In addition to insulation, other products that contained asbestos often included:
- Drywall tape
- Duct tape
- Electrical wiring
- Pipe insulation
- Certain paints
- Roofing Tiles and Shingles
- Flooring Tiles
Despite regulations that have legally mandated that these products no longer use asbestos, the substance can still be found on many construction sites. Numerous buildings still contain high quantities of asbestos because older asbestos-containing materials have yet to be removed.
Estimates suggest that around 1.3 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos each year even today. In some cases, it is also still legal to infuse certain products with asbestos provided that the substance makes up less than 1% of the product.
Some of these materials include:
- Cement Sheets
- Roofing Felt
- Pipeline Insulation Wraps
- Vinyl Floor Tiles
- Certain Plastics
It may take decades to get all the remaining asbestos out of buildings throughout the United States. As it stands, it is still important for construction workers to wear protective gear—including masks, eyewear, gloves, and other clothing—when working in a site known to have asbestos.
Asbestos was frequently used in the construction of ships often for the same reason that it was used in construction settings: to avoid fires. Of course, an out-of-control fire on a ship could be catastrophic for everyone on board. Engine rooms were often coated with spray-on asbestos insulation in order to manage temperatures and reduce the risk of fire.
Asbestos also worked well as an anti-corrosive agent and a general insulator throughout the rest of most ships.
Other products in which asbestos could be found include:
Obviously, shipbuilders and anyone who worked on those ships (including members of the military) were at high risk of workplace asbestos exposure. Everything from transporting materials to working in the engine room left workers at high risk of being exposed.
Veterans, many of whom are former Navy members who worked in shipyards and on ships, make up roughly 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses.
Industrial Plant Workers
Industrial plants often used equipment and machinery that ran hot and posed a fire risk. Unfortunately, many of those plants also employed the use of spray-on asbestos insulation in order to cool down those pieces of equipment and avoid the risk of fire. Industrial workers often used products and wore clothing that was riddled with asbestos as a safety measure.
Some of these included:
- Asbestos Paper
- Pipe Wrappings
- Caulking Compounds
- Asbestos Board for Heated Surfaces
- Sheet Backings Composed of Vinyl
Specific jobs inside industrial plants also required work that created airborne asbestos fibers. In many cases, workers were asked to use power tools directly on materials that contained asbestos which would release fibers into the air and increase the chances of inhalation.
Other industrial plant activities that created airborne asbestos included:
- Liquid Material Casting
- Metal Extraction from Ores
- Metal Forging
- Steel Smelting
- Copper Smelting
- Oil Refining
In the past, industrial plants were often had poor ventilation systems, meaning that airborne asbestos could stay in the atmosphere for hours on end. Because of this, even workers who did not perform duties related to asbestos could be exposed.
Firefighters are often at high risk of asbestos contamination because they are usually among the first responders to burning buildings. Again, as we’ve noted, many buildings were packed full of asbestos-containing materials until the 1970s. Today, some of those materials remain in buildings despite the fact that asbestos has essentially been regulated out of new construction.
Although asbestos is mixed with products to discourage fires from starting, it cannot completely ward off the possibility of a fire. During a fire, asbestos fibers become more concentrated in the smoke and charred debris. In order to avoid asbestos and other toxic fibers, many firefighters wear masks and protective clothing that they must sanitize after fighting the fire. Unfortunately, masks can come off while firefighters are dousing flames and attempting to save victims.
In general, there are products that contain asbestos that are considered relatively safe because the asbestos is fixed and not easily disturbed (e.g., vinyl flooring or cement). But, even those materials can be damaged enough during a fire or other catastrophe to release asbestos into the ambient air.
Firefighters and first responders who helped rescue individuals and clean up the rubble after 9/11 were likely exposed to massive amounts of asbestos and other toxic fibers in the air.
Power Plant Employees
Like industrial plants, power plants contain a variety of extremely hot equipment and machinery. In order to cool that down and limit the risk of a fire, power plants often employed spray-on asbestos insulation as a coating.
Asbestos insulation was often applied directly onto:
- Fire Blankets
- Pipes and Pipe Wrappings
- Hot Tops
Other Occupations At Risk of Exposure
Over 75 occupations are known to have been at some risk of asbestos exposure on the job. When asbestos usage was at its height in the United States, there was virtually no workplace that was fully safe from the contaminant. This is because virtually every building (including schools, libraries, and offices) was packed full of asbestos to limit fire danger. The risk in certain industries obviously was not as high as it was in others. But, that doesn’t mean the risk didn’t exist.
Some more common occupations for exposure to asbestos include:
Obviously, working with raw asbestos was not good for your health. The production of asbestos is no longer legal in the United States and the last mine closed in 2002, but these workers were still at a very high risk of incurring asbestos-related diseases
Textile mills often produced a litany of products that contained asbestos, including fire blankets, oven mitts, pot holders, flame-retardant clothing, roofing felts, and others
Vehicles are often built with parts that contain asbestos to limit overheating and the incidence of fires related to friction. Brake pads, brake linings, clutch linings, hood liners, gaskets, seals, valves, and other parts may even still contain asbestos to some degree
Manufacturing facilities often use hot machinery that requires some kind of insulation to cool and reduce fire risk. Of course, asbestos was often used for this. Machine repair workers were especially high risk because they were often required to work on equipment with loose, friable asbestos
Regulation of Asbestos at Work
Since the 1970s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have significantly curbed the amount of acceptable asbestos in workplaces.
While these organizations have yet to fully rid asbestos from every walk of life, they have significantly limited its destructive potential. OSHA, in particular, has helped lessen the amount of asbestos in workplaces.
Regulations it has imposed include:
- Permissible limits of exposure to asbestos – Workers cannot legally be exposed to asbestos at concentrations above a certain amount
- Hazard warnings – Proper signage and warnings must be installed around areas with high concentrations of asbestos. Workers should be prohibited from entering those areas
- Workplace training – If an employee works in an area with higher than permissible concentrations of asbestos, they must be properly trained each year on how to remain safe
- Routine monitoring – All workplaces must be monitored for their asbestos levels. Employees who work in high asbestos fields must also undergo medical screenings to detect any asbestos-related complications
OSHA also requires that employers provide their workers with proper protective gear and respiratory masks when working closely with asbestos. Any job-site that may contain asbestos must be examined by an asbestos abatement specialist before work can start.
If you suspect that your employer is not following asbestos regulations adequately, then you can contact your local OSHA office and file a complaint. Also, if applicable, be sure to contact your union representative. Unions are often leaders in the fight for worker protections.
OSHA and your union can help make your workplace safe from the threat of asbestos exposure. Remember that there is no amount of exposure to asbestos that is healthy. So, even if you notice a small amount of asbestos on your job-site, it’s important to report it.
If you develop an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma later in life, then you may want to seek compensation for both medical bills and pain and suffering.
There are a number of ways you can do this, including:
- Workers’ compensation claims
- Asbestos trust fund claims
- Veterans Affairs benefits claims
A lawyer who specializes in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses will help you decide on the path that’s best for you. They can also help you compile evidence to prove that you were exposed to asbestos at work.
Workplace asbestos exposure is becoming less and less worrisome. But, if you were exposed to asbestos on the job in the past, you will still have legal recourse to be remunerated appropriately. In the future, we can hope that all workplaces will be devoid of this toxic substance for good.