Regardless of your opinion of labor unions, there is no question that they have fought and continue to fight for worker protections and rights. Unions have helped to ensure that workers of all stripes can carry out the duties on their job without coming into contact with hazards that may impact their health.
Many unions have been at the forefront in the fight for worker protections from asbestos. The toxic mineral is known to cause a variety of illnesses, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and asbestosis.
Unfortunately, many companies only care about their bottom lines and not necessarily the health and wellbeing of their employees. This is a major reason why trade and labor unions are necessary. They are often the first line of defense between workers and exposure to hazardous pollutants like asbestos. When it comes to labor unions and asbestos exposure, it’s clear that they have largely had a positive impact.
But, why do workers need protection from asbestos in the first place?
A Brief History of Workplace Asbestos
In the late 19th century, a variety of product manufacturers began mixing asbestos in with their products. Asbestos is a natural mineral that is extremely durable and has inherent heat-resistant, soundproofing, and fireproofing characteristics. Its ability to avoid overheating and catching on fire was very attractive to businesses that used equipment that often ran hot.
Asbestos use boomed in the United States in the early 1900s, and production peaked in the 1970s at 804,000 metric tons. A large majority of friable asbestos (i.e., asbestos that can easily become airborne) was found in workplaces throughout the United States. Asbestos could also be found in building materials in virtually any building that was constructed between 1930 and 1970.
Common products and equipment that contained asbestos included:
- Spray-on Insulation Products
- Electrical Wiring
- Roofing Tiles and Shingles
- Flooring Material
- Any Type of Machinery that Ran Hot
- Car parts
There was virtually no escaping asbestos, but exposure occurred far more frequently for those who worked closely with the substance on the job. The problem with asbestos is that, when the dust is inhaled, microscopic fibers can embed themselves in lung tissue. Inhaling large quantities of asbestos over long periods of time increases your chance of developing a potentially life-threatening illness like mesothelioma. Even exposure to small amounts of asbestos can cause damage to your health.
The negative effects of asbestos have been known almost since the beginning of widespread asbestos mining and production in the late 19th century. Research into its effects in the 1920s and 30s illustrated just how hazardous asbestos could be. By the 1960s, it was a scientifically and medically accepted fact that asbestos could cause significant harm to the human body.
Even so, companies often neglected to inform their workers, despite the fact that those companies were typically well aware of the substance’s harmful effects. Obviously, asbestos production continued despite widespread knowledge among executive higher-ups that asbestos was causing health problems with workers.
Early Role of Unions in Regard to Asbestos Exposure
Companies were known to withhold information about asbestos’ detrimental effects. As early as the 1930s, unions began to realize that these cover-ups were happening, and they took strides to both inform workers and hold businesses accountable.
It was not uncommon in the early 20th century for businesses to engage in shady practices like:
- Destroying internal memos about asbestos
- Disregarding medical reports and clinical studies
- Offering compensation to employees with asbestos-related illnesses behind closed doors
- Legally prohibiting employees from telling their co-workers about asbestos
Early unions like the formerly separate American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were some of the first to catch on to these dubious habits. They helped expose backroom deals that denied workers access to information about the pernicious effects of asbestos exposure.
Labor and trade unions also paved the way for employees to receive compensation from their employers for asbestos-related diseases they incurred on the job. Before labor unions were able to wield their power, many workers had no recourse. If they developed an occupational asbestos-related disease, they were simply out of luck.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were formed and began regulating asbestos use in workplaces and other locations. But, it’s clear that the constant pressure from unions helped spur legislation and the creation of these agencies to protect workers.
How Can Unions Help You?
As unions continue to fight for better legislation, improved compensation, and safer workplaces, they can also provide assistance to individuals looking for recourse. If you are a member of a union, it is likely that they have procedures and provisions in place to help you in the event of a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness. Unions can also help workers who suspect that they have been exposed to asbestos at work.
Many unions offer:
- Health screenings related to asbestos exposure
- Workplace monitoring to ensure safety
- Financial compensation for medical bills after diagnosis of a disease
- Advocacy for higher settlements in asbestos court cases and trust funds
- Resources for finding qualified legal representation
- Awareness of worker rights as they relate to asbestos
- Work in finding witnesses and other evidence for court cases
- Financial assistance for families who have lost loved ones due to asbestos-related illnesses
Health screenings are an ideal way to get a jump on any possible issues that could arise in your body due to asbestos. Unions often pay for medical professionals to come to job sites and provide imaging scans like x-rays to identify the possible existence of any asbestos-related conditions. Being prepared for the possibility of asbestos-related disease is extremely important because prognoses for such illness as mesothelioma are rarely good at diagnosis.
Unions also often offer workplace monitoring. If you suspect that your workplace leaves you at risk of asbestos exposure, then consider calling your union representative to talk about investigating and monitoring the site. Agencies like the EPA and OSHA require employers to limit the amount of asbestos that workers can be exposed to. Union representatives can help be early enforcers to make sure employers are following regulations.
After a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma, you might not think contacting a union is a beneficial thing. But, even if you have long been retired or you were only a member of a union for a small number of years, you may still be able to receive both financial and legal assistance. Compiling witnesses and evidence for a lawsuit or other claim is one of the most difficult processes for individuals with asbestos-related illnesses, but a union can make it all the more convenient.
Unions may even provide financial and legal assistance to families who have lost a loved one to an asbestos-related illness they developed at work. There is nothing more gut-wrenching than losing a family member to a preventable disease.
The financial and emotional toll only adds on to that misery. Receiving any kind of help from a union could prove to be invaluable. When it comes to labor unions and mesothelioma, it’s important to know that the will be on your side.
Unions that Fight for Asbestos Protections
In general, most unions will fight for asbestos worker protections in some form or fashion. After all, the main goal of all unions is to ensure that their members work under safe conditions and are fairly compensated. However, there are many professions that are much more likely to be exposed to asbestos. Their unions, therefore, are generally more equipped to offer the most resources, advice, and assistance.
United Automobile Workers
United Auto Workers (UAW) was one of the first unions to make a concerted effort to fight against asbestos exposure on the job. Many car parts such as clutches, brake pads, and brake linings contained asbestos for numerous years. The mineral would mitigate the chance of fires caused by friction in these parts. Auto mechanics and auto manufacturing employees were often at risk of exposure when making or working on these parts, which is why the UAW has historically been so active.
International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers
Commonly referred to simply as “Insulators,” the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers became one of the most important advocates for asbestos regulation and worker rights. For a long period of time, insulation products practically became synonymous with asbestos.
Any individual who worked with insulation products prior to the 1980s was likely exposed to large quantities of asbestos. Asbestos-laden insulation was used throughout homes, schools, offices, and virtually any other building, and it was usually insulation workers who put it there.
Insulators also often applied insulation to:
- Electrical Lines
- Heavy Equipment
- Metal Girders
The Insulators union has created a health screening program to protect its workers. They lobbied for asbestos abatement with a political action fund, and provided resources and training for how to handle and remove asbestos safely.
International Longshoremen’s Association
Longshoremen and numerous other maritime employees often spent a great deal of their time in ships and on shipyards. Ships were often riddled with asbestos to avoid the threat of fire on the open ocean. On ships, the concentration of asbestos could be dangerously high because of the confined space and lack of ventilation.
Many individuals who develop mesothelioma worked on ships and shipyards in the past. The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) has worked to limit the amount of asbestos in ships, making them safer for future generations.
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers
This long-named union of like-minded professions has often worked to reduce asbestos in their fields. Boilermakers and iron shipbuilders, in particular, were at high risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos insulation was routinely used to manage temperatures in very hot boilers. Boilermakers would often construct and perform maintenance on these pieces of machinery, increasing the risk of asbestos exposure. Iron shipbuilders likewise had to deal with asbestos during the construction of ships.
The heat in many steel mills in the past made asbestos a necessary part of life. Not only was the substance used on equipment, but it could also be found in protective gear worn by steelworkers, including:
- Face Masks
- Other Clothing
The United Steelworkers union has been instrumental in fighting for legislation to protect their workers from this substance. It was also among the first trade unions to begin informing their members of the dangers of asbestos.
United Mine Workers of America
Miners were on the first line of asbestos exposure. Asbestos mining was an incredibly hazardous occupation, but mine operators usually didn’t let their employees know just how dangerous it was. United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) helped lobby for safer conditions and for employers to be required to equip their workers with protective gear. Although the last asbestos mine in the United States shut down in 2002, the UMWA still fights for miners of vermiculite, talc, and other substance that may be contaminated with asbestos.
United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers
Roofing was a profession that was rife with asbestos for many years. Shingles, tiles, and many other roofing materials would often be made with asbestos to increase durability and fire-resistance. Unfortunately, many roofers were exposed to asbestos because they had to saw or cut through these products, releasing airborne asbestos pollutants.
The United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers has fought to remove asbestos from roofing and waterproofing products and has largely been successful in that endeavor.
Numerous other unions have fought to keep their workers safe from the perils of asbestos. They have also provided financial and legal help to their members who needed it.
Some of these unions include:
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
- International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers
- Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
- Utility Workers Union of America
Because of the work of unions, workplace asbestos levels have been decreasing exponentially for decades. While job sites are still not 100% safe, it is clear that unions have led the charge against asbestos exposure and have produced some significant successes.