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Asbestos Exposure in Boiler Workers

Boiler workers of the past have been put at great risk of being exposed to asbestos and of developing related illnesses like mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although exposure risks were worse in the past, people who work with and around boilers are still at risk. Boilermakers, who are workers that fabricate steel products, not just for boilers, are also at risk of asbestos exposure.

Past boiler workers are being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other illnesses in their retirement because of asbestos exposure. Current workers in this field should be aware of the risks asbestos on the job still poses to them. They should also understand their rights to a safe workplace and to sue if employers do not take measures to protect them from asbestos.

Boilers and Boilermakers

Boilers are containers designed to heat and boil liquids, usually water. Boilers are used for heating water, much like hot water heaters, for heating buildings, for generating power with the steam, and in cooking and sanitation. They range from small residential models to large industrial boilers and boilers used on ships. On ships, boilers are used to drive cargo pumps, to generate electricity, to heat the ship, and to heat water.

There are several types of jobs that people do working with and around boilers. There are workers who operate boilers, those who maintain and repair them, and those who produce them. The term boilermaker originally referred to someone who fabricated boilers, but today it refers to any worker who produces fabrications of any type from steel. They may work on boilers, but also anything else made with steel from furnaces to bridges to ships.

Asbestos in Boilers

Boiler workers have long been put at risk for being exposed to asbestos because it is so useful in applications involving heat. Asbestos is a natural mineral that resists heat and fire, so it has been used extensively in fireproofing and insulation, two applications needed in boilers. Boilers made before the early 1980s are likely to contain asbestos. It was used to prevent heat from leaking from the boiler and the pipes attached to it and to protect against fire in and around boiler rooms.

In 1975 the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of pipe and block insulation with asbestos that is friable. Friable means the asbestos in a material can easily be crumbled, allowing fibers to become airborne. This means that even modern boilers may contain asbestos, although it should be contained, non-friable, and safe to be around if not disturbed.

Exposure to Asbestos on the Job

Boiler workers that were active in the decades before bans were put on asbestos are at the greatest risk of developing illnesses like mesothelioma because they were most certainly exposed to asbestos. In fabricating boilers using asbestos, working in boiler rooms to operate or repair boilers, and working near boilers meant being exposed to asbestos. These older workers were only diagnosed with mesothelioma and other conditions decades after working and being exposed.

Boilermakers and boiler workers today are still at risk of being exposed to asbestos, especially when working in older buildings and with older boilers. A significant portion of boilers in use today are older models, made before asbestos regulations. Disrupting asbestos while maintaining or repairing boilers can send fibers into the air where workers may inhale them and get sick later.

Boiler Workers in Asbestos Research

Boiler workers have been the subject of a number of studies related to asbestos and asbestos-related illnesses because of their known exposure. These studies have proven that boiler workers have been exposed to asbestos, that they are still at risk for exposure, and that they get sick from that exposure. In one Australian study, 94 people with mesothelioma were people diagnosed between 1986 and 1995. They had all worked with and around boilers in their careers.

Another study was conducted in Michigan with 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 and 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 who have been exposed to asbestos on the job and later became sick because of it can bring a suit against an employer or manufacturer to seek compensation. If safety procedures were not followed, if workers were not given adequate asbestos safety training, or if they were expected to work around asbestos without their knowledge, they may have a strong legal case to make for negligence in getting sick.

One successful case was brought by a former boiler operator, William Pfeifer of California. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009 after a career working with boilers and being exposed to asbestos. He brought his suit against John Crane, Inc., the manufacturer of asbestos-containing products he used during his 30-year career. The case went his way and a jury awarded him a settlement citing the company’s negligence in failing to warn employees and customers of the dangers that their products posed because of asbestos.

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 and know what your rights are. There are regulations in place that limit how asbestos can be used in boilers and also safety rules that must be followed in the workplace. If you are ever concerned that asbestos may be an issue in your workplace, speak up and ask for an 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 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.

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