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Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Millions working in industrial, blue-collar, or military jobs during the 20th century were exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was widely used since it was cheap and durable. However, asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma. After the health risks were known, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limited how asbestos could be used.

Fact-Checked and Updated by: Jenna Tozzi, RN

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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
  • Firefighting
  • Insulation work
  • Plumbing
  • 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.

Deaths from Mesothelioma

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.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure Quick Facts
  • 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).
  • About 50% of all deaths from occupational cancer are caused by asbestos, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) reports.
  • 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.

Construction Workers

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
  • Painting
  • Roofing
  • 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.

Firefighters

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.

Did You Know?

Firefighters are 200 times more likely to develop asbestos-related illnesses, according to Greg Russell, the Governmental Affairs Representative for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Firefighters today are 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 Workers

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.

Insulators

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.

Mining Sites

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.

Did You Know?

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.

Shipyards

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
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Paint

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.

Construction Sites

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:

  • Cement
  • Insulation
  • Gaskets
  • Paints
  • Plaster
  • Roofing materials
  • Rope
  • Tiles

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

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

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

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.

Did You Know?

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.

Lung Cancer

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.

Other Cancers

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.

Non-Cancerous Diseases

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

    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.

  • Pleural effusion

    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

    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.

Get our Free Mesothelioma Guide to learn more about asbestos-related diseases, treatments, and more.

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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 help 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.

Did You Know?

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 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.

Asbestos Hazard Classifications

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.

As for the EPA, the agency proposed a ban on all uses of asbestos in April 2022. Most recently, in March 2023, it issued an updated proposal that would ban all uses of chrysotile asbestos. This type of asbestos is the most common and the type most likely to be used in commercial applications.

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.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure FAQs

What is occupational exposure of asbestos?

Occupational exposure to asbestos is when workers are exposed to asbestos fibers while doing their jobs.

From the 1930s to the early 1980s, asbestos was used in many products that workers handled every day as part of their job. Occupational asbestos exposure was especially common in industries like construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing.

What to do if you've been exposed to asbestos at work?

It’s crucial for anyone who has been exposed to asbestos to be aware of the risks and seek medical advice if they experience possible symptoms.

While working with asbestos does increase the risk of developing mesothelioma, it doesn’t mean everyone exposed will get the disease.

The likelihood of developing mesothelioma depends on factors like how much asbestos someone is exposed to and how long they are exposed.

What is the asbestos occupational cancer?

Mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer are common asbestos-related occupational cancers. Both cancers can develop after someone inhales asbestos fibers when performing their daily job duties, usually 10-50 years from exposure.

Jenna TozziWritten by:

Director of Patient Advocacy

Jenna Tozzi, RN, is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Mesothelioma Hope. With more than 15 years of experience as an adult and pediatric oncology nurse navigator, Jenna provides exceptional guidance and support to mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Jenna has been featured in Oncology Nursing News and is a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators & the American Nurses Association.

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References
  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (n.d.). Asbestos Toxicity. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7
  2. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Asbestos and Cancer Risk. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/asbestos.html
  3. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Survival Rates for Mesothelioma. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-statistics.html
  4. Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Mesothelioma Awareness Month: Thirty Irrefutable Asbestos and Mesothelioma Facts for Thirty Days. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/newsroom/blogs/mesothelioma-awareness-month-thirty-irrefutable-asbestos-and-mesothelioma-facts-for-thirty-days-3/
  5. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, October 22). Asbestos Still Lurks in Older Buildings: Are Your Lungs at Risk? Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/asbestos-still-lurks-older-buildings-lungs-risk/
  6. Haas, K. (2019, December 9). Shipyard workers, Navy veterans may have been exposed to asbestos. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.unionleader.com/news/health/shipyard-workers-navy-veterans-may-have-been-exposed-to-asbestos/article_f4884828-a162-593c-8206-5ca8e2655dda.html
  7. International Association of Firefighters. IAFF Supports a Nationwide Asbestos Ban. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.iaff.org/news/iaff-supports-a-nationwide-asbestos-ban/ 
  8. Lara, A. R. (2022, September). Asbestos-Related Pleural Disease. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/environmental-pulmonary-diseases/asbestos-related-pleural-disease
  9. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Asbestos. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/
  10. Virta, R. L. (2006). Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 through 2003. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2006/1298/c1298.pdf
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