Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace
Worksites across the United States relied on asbestos-containing products for decades.
Versatile, strong, and resistant to fire, water, and sound, asbestos was described as a “faithful servant to mankind” in the 1940s.
Many jobs put workers in contact with asbestos, including:
- Construction work
- Insulation work
- Shipyard work
- Vehicle maintenance
Yet, the general public was unaware of an awful secret: Occupational asbestos exposure could cause deadly health problems, including cancers like mesothelioma.
Only the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew this, but they hid the facts to keep making money.
As a result, millions of workers — along with their families and loved ones — were regularly exposed to asbestos and put at risk of serious asbestos-related illnesses.
It is believed that mesothelioma alone causes 43,000 worldwide deaths each year, according to a report published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Workers exposed to asbestos decades ago should be aware of the consequences and take action if they believe they are suffering from asbestos-related health problems.
These workers can seek life-extending medical treatments and may be able to take legal action against the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products to receive compensation.
- Between 1940 and 1979, it is estimated that 27.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
- The ATSDR also notes that occupational asbestos exposure peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in western countries like the United States.
- According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there is no safe level of occupational asbestos exposure. That said, the more asbestos a worker is exposed to, the higher their risk of diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer.
How Were Workers Exposed to Asbestos on the Job?
Workers who develop asbestos-related diseases may not realize how they were exposed on the job. Learn how below.
Direct or Frequent Asbestos Exposure
Many who worked in jobs such as mining, shipbuilding, manufacturing, and construction personally handled asbestos as part of their job duties on a frequent, or even daily, basis.
Indirect or Incidental Asbestos Exposure
Workers who moved between departments, inspected job sites, or worked for suppliers may have also been exposed even though they didn’t directly work with asbestos-containing products. If asbestos fibers were in the air, anyone nearby could be at risk.
Because of these reasons, anyone who worked in an asbestos-related job could be at risk of deadly health issues today.
High-Risk Occupations for Asbestos Exposure
Some workers physically handled asbestos on a regular basis through the equipment they operated, the products they used, or the personal protective equipment they wore.
Below, get a breakdown of jobs with a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), construction workers often faced high levels of occupational asbestos exposure.
Countless building materials were made with asbestos before the health risks of the mineral were widely known.
These roles put construction workers at risk of exposure:
- Drywall installation
- Setting tile
At particular risk of occupational asbestos exposure were workers who needed to remove, repair, or demolish asbestos materials (such as damaged insulation or pipes).
These actions could release asbestos particles into the air, making it easier for construction workers to inhale them and get sick later on.
Buildings were made with asbestos-containing products up to the early 1980s. If these buildings caught on fire, asbestos particles were released into the air, meaning firefighters could breathe them in.
Firefighters’ uniforms and gloves also contained asbestos since the material resisted heat and fire.
According to researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), firefighters had double the rates of mesothelioma when compared to the general population.
Firefighters today are still at risk if older homes and structures built with asbestos catch fire. The Cleveland Clinic notes that any building made before the 1980s may still have asbestos-containing materials inside them.
Industrial work included many different jobs, such as machine operators, assembly line workers, plumbers, mechanics, and welders. Each of these jobs may have put workers in contact with asbestos on a daily basis.
Some of these jobs may even expose workers today. For example, older machines, vehicles, and pipe systems can still contain asbestos — and if workers don’t take the proper precautions, they may be exposed.
When asbestos was thought to be safe by the general public, it was frequently used as insulation.
If insulators regularly needed to install or remove asbestos-based insulation, they disturbed the microscopic asbestos fibers found in the insulation.
Inhaling these fibers put workers at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases later on.
It also was common practice to wrap pipes in asbestos for insulation.
For this reason, pipelayers, pipefitters, plumbers, and steamfitters responsible for removing or installing asbestos-based insulation could be at a high risk of mesothelioma or other diseases today.
Navy Shipyard Workers
Like construction workers, shipyard workers were at a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure because they had to remove, install, or repair asbestos-containing products on a daily basis.
Navy shipyards were particularly dangerous, as this branch of the U.S. Armed Forces used more asbestos-containing products than any other branch.
“All the [Navy] ships were full of asbestos because it is a great fire retardant,” oncologist Dr. Christian Thomas said in a 2019 interview. “There’s a huge concern about fires on ships, so they threw asbestos on everything.”
Navy shipyard workers were even at risk when they were off-duty as well. The Navy used asbestos-containing products in almost all of its buildings, meaning mess halls and sleeping quarters could have exposed them as well.
Other Jobs With High Risk of Asbestos Exposure
The jobs listed above are not the only ones that put workers at risk of occupational asbestos exposure. Workers may have come in contact with asbestos in dozens of different occupations, listed below.
Workers can still be exposed today if older asbestos-based products are found on their job and the risks are not assessed.
High-Risk Worksites for Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Many worksites used asbestos in large amounts and on a frequent basis.
This asbestos exposure in the workplace put employees at these high-risk sites at risk of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos is naturally found in rock deposits, meaning it must be mined in order for it to be used. The mining process could easily send asbestos fibers into the air where they could be inhaled.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Interior, the last American asbestos mine shut down in 2002.
That said, anyone who worked in the mines before they closed workers are very much at risk of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis in the coming years.
Asbestos was a staple of shipbuilding for decades, meaning that shipyards were high-risk zones for occupational asbestos exposure.
These shipyard products could contain asbestos:
- Electrical wires
- Fireproofing materials
- Floor tiles
Anyone who worked in a shipyard — whether owned by a private company or the U.S. Navy — was likely exposed to these asbestos-containing products on a regular basis.
Because the construction industry heavily relied on asbestos-containing products, any worksite came with a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure.
These construction products contained asbestos:
- Roofing materials
Though OSHA placed tighter restrictions on the use of asbestos-containing products in the 1970s and 1980s, they came too late to help those who were already exposed.
Chemical plants throughout history used extensive amounts of asbestos-containing products for fire protection and insulation. Those working at chemical plants — such as engineers, boilermakers, or technicians — could have been at risk of exposure.
Oil refineries used asbestos-based products to insulate pipes and protect them from fire. Unfortunately, this put those working at oil refineries at risk of occupational exposure to asbestos.
Other Worksites with High Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Many other job sites put workers at risk of occupational asbestos exposure — not just those listed above.
Other worksites with risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Aluminum plants
- Automobile assembly plants
- Brewing facilities
- Military bases
- Power plants
- Steel mills
However, not everyone employed on these sites had the same level of risk.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), those who were exposed to a lot of asbestos over longer periods of time have a higher risk of developing cancer or other illnesses than those who weren’t.
The level of asbestos exposure risk depends on the type of day-to-day work someone performed.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure Risks
Occupational exposure to asbestos can cause workers to develop deadly health problems, including mesothelioma, decades after they were exposed.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they never leave the body because they are too strong to be broken down.
Instead, the fibers get stuck in healthy cell tissue, slowly causing irritation. This irritation may lead to inflammation, scarring, and cancer.
Learn more about common asbestos diseases below.
Mesothelioma is a deadly and incredibly aggressive cancer. It can develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testicles 20-50 years after someone is first exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is particularly dangerous because it is very rare — with only 3,000 cases diagnosed each year — and its symptoms are usually mild at first. This makes it very difficult to diagnose and treat.
Adding to the problem is that mesothelioma spreads rapidly. Many victims are not diagnosed until the cancer has reached its later stages, making treatment options even more limited.
For these reasons, mesothelioma patients typically have a very poor life expectancy. According to the ACS, only 10% of patients with pleural mesothelioma will still be alive after 5 years.
Asbestos fibers that are inhaled can also settle into the lungs rather than in the lung lining. If this happens, it can increase the worker’s risk of asbestos lung cancer.
According to the ACS, most cases of asbestos-related lung cancer typically occur 15 years or longer after the victim was exposed to asbestos.
The ACS also notes that the risk of lung cancer is increased depending on how much asbestos a worker was exposed to.
A worker’s risk of lung cancer is often greater if they smoked cigarettes.
Occupational asbestos exposure has also been linked to other forms of cancer.
These cancers include:
- Larynx (voice box) cancer
- Ovarian cancer
According to the ACS, occupational exposure to asbestos also may possibly cause colon, rectum, throat, and stomach cancer. More research is needed to confirm these links.
Occupational asbestos exposure can also cause non-cancerous diseases, some of which can be just as harmful.
Learn more about the non-cancerous diseases caused by occupational asbestos exposure below.
Asbestosis is a chronic disease only caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. According to OSHA, it develops after asbestos fibers cause scar tissue to build up in the lungs, making it harder for the victim to breathe. Complications from asbestosis can lead to death.
This occurs when fluid builds up in the lining of the lungs. Pleural effusions may lead to a dry cough, chest pain, or difficulty breathing.
Pleural plaques occur in up to 60% of workers exposed to asbestos, according to the Merck Manual, a renowned medical textbook. Though pleural plaques are non-threatening, they may be a sign of mesothelioma.
Anyone exposed to asbestos on the job and who is experiencing possible symptoms of the diseases listed above should tell their doctor about their exposure history.
This can doctors them rule out other, more common health problems that may not be related to occupational asbestos exposure.
A History of Occupational Asbestos Use
Before asbestos was widely known as a health hazard, it was a staple ingredient of countless manufactured products, construction materials, and vehicle parts.
Industrial asbestos use began well before the turn of the 20th century, and nearly 70% of workers in the 1900s were regularly exposed for at least two months of employment.
Yet the mineral wasn’t widely used until World War II and postwar construction.
In fact, 70% to 80% of asbestos consumption has been attributed to the construction industry, whether industrial, commercial, or residential.
Although asbestos manufacturers did their best to hide the truth about their products’ health risks and cover up their negligence, eventually the indisputable medical evidence became clear.
By the early 1980s, asbestos began to be phased out of use due to the associated health risks.
Asbestos Use Today
In the U.S., asbestos is almost never used on job sites today due to the obvious dangers.
However, some workers are still at risk today, including:
- Active military members serving overseas, as they could be exposed when older, asbestos-containing structures explode.
- Auto mechanics working on older vehicles built with asbestos-lined brakes and engine parts are also at risk of continued exposure.
- First responders like firefighters, police officers, and paramedics may come in contact with asbestos when they enter old buildings damaged by fires, cave-ins, or natural disasters.
- Workers who renovate and demolish old buildings may be exposed to asbestos if they don’t know beforehand that the mineral is present.
Even worse, asbestos is still not totally banned in the U.S. today. As long as asbestos-containing products are used, there will always be a risk of exposure and deadly health risks.
Laws and Regulations Affecting Occupational Exposure to Asbestos
Two governing bodies — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the OSHA — have taken steps to regulate occupational asbestos exposure.
The first regulations about occupational exposure to asbestos came in 1971.
The EPA helped define what materials were considered toxic, and the two agencies together decided on maximum exposure amounts.
Since the initial regulation, OSHA has continued to reduce the maximum allowable concentration of asbestos in the workplace.
OSHA has classified the level of danger for different asbestos-related work activities. Class I jobs are the most dangerous and involve the direct handling of asbestos. Class IV covers custodial and maintenance duties that require dust and debris cleaning.
Because asbestos is still a workplace threat, all workers are encouraged to find out what steps their employers are taking to keep occupational asbestos exposure to a minimum.
It’s up to employers to ensure all workplaces meet the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of asbestos. OSHA must also regularly monitor airborne asbestos levels to make sure they don’t exceed the set limits.
All workers should be aware of their rights to a healthy and safe work environment.
Workers are within their rights to ask for copies of workplace hazard test results to ensure their employer is following all regulations. Workers can also request to see records of any workplace injuries and illnesses.
Next Steps for Victims of Occupational Asbestos Exposure
If you were — or are still — employed on a worksite that used asbestos and have developed an asbestos-related disease, you have legal rights to compensation.
Today, many companies are liable for costs associated with illness and disease caused by occupational asbestos exposure.
Workers may be able to access compensation by taking legal action against manufacturers of asbestos-containing products.
To learn more about occupational asbestos exposure — and what legal options may be available to you — contact us today.