Construction Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Construction is one of the most dangerous industries to work in, and in addition to the risks of falls, electrocutions, and falling objects, there is the risk of being exposed to asbestos. Although regulations have limited the use of asbestos in construction materials, older buildings often contain a lot of this dangerous mineral and it is still used in some new construction materials.
Anyone working in construction is in a profession that has one of the greatest risks for being exposed to asbestos. This includes workers in demolition and restoration, builders, electricians, drywall hangers, plumbers, roofers, and more. Anyone doing any kind of work in construction, both in decades past and currently needs to be aware of the risks of asbestos and how it can lead to health conditions like mesothelioma.
Asbestos Use before the mid-1970s
Construction workers at the greatest risk for asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma are those that worked in the industry before the mid- to late-1970s. This was a time period during which asbestos was used in nearly every aspect of building construction. It was used so readily because it was cheap and abundant and because it adds strength to materials and protects against heat loss and fire. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stated that the following materials, if installed in a building before 1981, can be assumed to contain asbestos:
- Roofing and siding shingles
- Putty, caulk, cement, and plaster
- Thermal insulation
- Spray-on coatings
- Ceiling tiles
- Vinyl flooring
People working in the industry when these materials were used in the construction of nearly all buildings, were likely exposed to asbestos. Some of these workers are now experiencing the consequences because asbestos-related illnesses have long latency periods. Deaths from asbestosis and mesothelioma increased in the 1990s and have continued to increase as older construction workers develop the symptoms and are diagnosed with these conditions.
Construction Workers Still at Risk
Although workers in construction before limitations were put on asbestos use are at the greatest risk of developing related illnesses, current workers are still being exposed to asbestos. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.3 million people working in construction are currently exposed to it on the job. Most of the asbestos that is still used in new materials in the U.S. is used in construction materials.
OSHA regulates workplace safety with respect to asbestos exposure, but not all employers comply perfectly with those regulations. When the regulations are not put in place, when safety measures are not used, and when the rules are not enforced in a construction work place, the workers may be at a considerable risk for being exposed and getting sick because of asbestos.
Workers may be put at risk because of an employer’s failure to follow safety regulations, but workers are also at risk because asbestos is still legally used in some new construction materials. These include certain adhesives, floor backing, drywall taping compounds, some insulation, ductwork connectors, roofing felt, cement sheets, roof coatings, millboard, and vinyl floor tiles.
Demolition, Renovation, and Repair
Among the most dangerous of all construction jobs for asbestos exposure are those that disrupt or disturb older materials containing the mineral. Demolition of old buildings is a particularly risky activity. Workers are responsible for tearing down a building and all its materials, which could mean exposing and crushing asbestos, which sends fibers into the air where they can be inhaled.
Even smaller-scale jobs, like renovating a kitchen or repairing heating systems or plumbing, if done in an older building, can expose workers to asbestos. In any of these situations, it is important that the building first be inspected for asbestos. If any is found it needs to be abated or removed in a safe way by trained professionals who know how to do it without disturbing the fibers and who are licensed by the state to perform the job.
Studies of Workplace Asbestos Exposure in the Construction Industry
Multiple studies into the risk that construction workers face have confirmed that they are in fact in danger of being exposed to asbestos and of developing related illnesses. For example, one study investigated construction workers in North Carolina who died between 1988 and 1994. The researchers found that these workers, when compared to the general population, were more likely to have died from cancer, including pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma.
In another study, researchers found that among 952 cases of mesothelioma, 251 were in people who worked in the construction industry. The researchers also found that there was a significant amount of asbestos fibers in the lungs of those construction workers with mesothelioma, cementing the connection between the cancer and asbestos exposure. In other words, one-third of cases of mesothelioma could be accounted for by construction-related exposure to asbestos.
Worker who have already been exposed to asbestos in the construction industry and who have suffered illnesses because of it have sometimes sought legal action through a mesothelioma lawsuit. Workers have a right to a safe workplace and if an employer or the manufacturer of asbestos-containing materials can be found to be liable in putting a worker in danger, that worker may win a settlement award.
In one such case a man who worked as a ceiling tile installer developed mesothelioma after working with products that contained asbestos. The man died in 2007, but his family took over his case and won a settlement from Bondex Interantional, Simpson Timber Co., and Conwed Corp., the companies that made the ceiling tiles he worked with for years. The worker’s attorneys successfully made the case that it was the inhalation of dust from these ceiling tiles that caused him to develop mesothelioma. A jury awarded a settlement of $4.5 million.
Another big case involved Union Carbide, a company that provided asbestos to manufacturers of construction materials. In 2012 a jury awarded a California man a $48 million settlement, which included $18 million in punitive damages against Union Carbide. Other companies targeted in the lawsuit settled before going to a jury trial. The man had worked on multiple Los Angeles construction sites throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The jury awarded the $30 million in compensatory damages to the man, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2011, for physical pain, loss of quality life, mental distress and emotional distress.
There are many workers at risk of exposure to asbestos across a range of industries, but construction workers have historically been at a very high risk and continue to risk being exposed and getting sick while on the job. Regulations have helped, but workers also rely on their employers and manufacturers to follow those regulations and to provide them with safe work environments. If you worked in the construction industry and are now suffering from mesothelioma or other related illnesses, you can seek justice through a lawsuit and potentially win compensation from those liable.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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