Asbestos exposure in boiler workers has led to the development of related illnesses, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Exposure risks have decreased with asbestos bans, but those who worked with boilers in the past are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other illnesses in their retirement.
Boilers and Boilermakers
Boilers are containers designed to heat and boil liquids. Boilers are used much like water heaters. Uses include heating buildings and 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. Boilers are used to drive cargo pumps, generate electricity, heat the ship, and heat water on ships.
Several jobs involve working with and around boilers. Employment options include workers who operate boilers, maintain and repair them, and manufacture them.
The term boilermaker originally referred to someone who fabricated boilers; however, today, the term refers to any worker who produces containers and vats from any type of steel.
Asbestos in Boilers
Boiler workers have long been put at risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos is useful in many applications involving heat because it resists fire and is an effective insulator.
Asbestos has been 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 protect against fire in and around boiler rooms.
In 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned pipe and block insulation made with friable asbestos. 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 active in the decades before asbestos bans are at the greatest risk of developing illnesses like mesothelioma. These workers performed several duties that put them at risk for asbestos exposure:
- Fabricating boilers using asbestos
- Working in boiler rooms to operate them
- Repairing boilers
- Working near boilers or in boiler rooms
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.
Workers maintaining, repairing, or operating boilers can accidentally disrupt asbestos and send fibers into the air where they can be inhaled. Workers who inhale asbestos fibers can develop serious illnesses, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
Boiler Workers in Asbestos Research
Boiler workers have been the subject of several 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. One Australian study looked at occupational asbestos exposure. Boilermakers and related workers had some of the highest rates of exposure.
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% 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 time spent working in the boiler industry.
Workers in boiler rooms who later developed asbestos 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 negligent. If workers were expected to work near asbestos without their knowledge, they might 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.
He filed a lawsuit against John Crane, Inc., the manufacturer of the asbestos-containing products he used during his thirty-year career. The case was decided in his favor, and a jury awarded him a settlement. The jury 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 and 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.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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.