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In the past, boiler workers have been at great risk of being exposed to asbestos and of developing related illnesses including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although exposure risks were worse in the past, people who work with and around boilers continue to be at risk. Also, workers who fabricate steel products for boilers can also be at risk of exposure to asbestos.
Those who worked with boilers in the past are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other illnesses in their retirement. These illnesses are due to earlier asbestos exposure in their line of work. Current workers in this field should be aware of the risks asbestos jobs still pose to them. Workers should also understand their rights to a safe workplace and how to sue if employers fail to take measures to protect them.
Boilers and Boilermakers
Boilers are containers designed to heat and boil liquids. These containers are most commonly used to heat or boil water. Boilers are used much like hot water heaters. Uses include heating buildings, generating power with steam. Boilers are also used in cooking and sanitation. Sizes range from small residential models to large industrial boilers, and also include boilers used on ships. On ships, boilers are used to drive cargo pumps, generate electricity, heat the ship, and heat water.
There are several jobs that work with and around boilers. Employment options include workers who operate boilers, those who maintain and repair them, and those who manufacture them. The term boilermaker originally referred to someone who fabricated boilers. However, today the term refers to any worker who produces fabrications of any type from steel.
Asbestos in Boilers
Boiler workers have long been put at risk of asbestos exposure because it is useful in applications involving heat. Asbestos is a natural mineral that resists heat and fire. These qualities have led to asbestos being used extensively in fireproofing and insulation, two applications necessary for boilers. Boilers made before the early 1980s likely contain asbestos. Asbestos was used to prevent heat from leaking from the boiler and to protect against fire in and around boiler rooms.
In 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of pipe and block insulation made with friable asbestos. Friable Asbestos that is friable means the material can easily crumble, allowing fibers to become airborne. This means that even modern boilers may contain asbestos, although it should be contained, non-friable, and safe if not disturbed.
Exposure to Asbestos on the Job
Boiler workers that were active in the decades before asbestos bans are at greatest risk of developing illnesses like mesothelioma. This increased risk is due to to asbestos exposure. In fabricating boilers using asbestos, working in boiler rooms to operate or repair boilers, and working near boilers could cause exposure. Older workers were only diagnosed with mesothelioma and other conditions decades after exposure.
Today, boilermakers and boiler workers are still at risk of asbestos exposure, especially when working with older boilers. A significant portion of boilers in use today are older models made before asbestos regulations. While maintaining or repairing boilers, asbestos can be accidentally disrupted, sending fibers into the air where they can be inhaled. Workers who inhale asbestos fibers can later develop serious illnesses, including mesothelioma, asbestiosis, and lung cancer.
Boiler Workers in Asbestos Research
Boiler workers have been the subject of a number of studies related to asbestos and asbestos-related illnesses. These studies have proven boiler workers have been exposed to asbestos. Studies have also concluded that workers are still at risk for exposure and can become sick from that exposure. In one Australian study, 94 people with mesothelioma were diagnosed between 1986 and 1995. All the subjects of the study had worked with and around boilers.
Another study conducted in Michigan focused on unionized boilermakers. The workers were found to have more pleural plaques than would be expected in the general population. These workers also had higher rates of dyspnea, a symptom of pleural mesothelioma, and fibrosis. About 30 percent of the boilermakers had some kind of pleural anomaly. More than half had some kind of respiratory difficulty. The number of health problems they experienced increased with the amount of time spent working in the boiler industry.
Workers in boiler rooms exposed to asbestos on the job and who later developed illnesses can file a lawsuit against an employer or manufacturer to seek compensation. If safety procedures were not followed or workers were not given adequate asbestos safety training, their employers may be found negligent. If workers were expected to work near asbestos without their knowledge, they may have a strong legal case.
One successful case was brought by a former boiler operator, William Pfeifer of California. Pfeifer was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009 after a career working with boilers. During his career, he was exposed to asbestos. He filed a lawsuit against John Crane, Inc., the manufacturer of the asbestos-containing products he used during his 30-year career. The case was decided in his favor and a jury awarded him a settlement. The jury found decided the company was negligent in failing to warn employees and customers of the dangers their products posed.
Boilermakers and boiler workers have been, and may continue to be, exposed to dangerous asbestos through their jobs. If you have worked with boilers or as a boilermaker, you should be aware of the risks and dangers associated with asbestos exposure. There are regulations in place that limit asbestos use also provide safety rules for the workplace. If you are concerned that asbestos may be an issue in your workplace, speak up and request inspection, abatement, or better safety equipment. If you have been diagnosed with an illness related to asbestos, you may be able to seek damages through a lawsuit or asbestos trust fund.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.