Industrial Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Industrial workers have long been at risk of exposure to asbestos and the illnesses it causes. Asbestos has been used in a variety of industrial materials, and while there are regulations in place now, it is still used and workers are still at risk. Even with occupational health and safety rules, some workers may still be exposed while older workers are now suffering the consequences of having been exposed decades ago.
Asbestos fibers, when airborne, can be inhaled by workers and cause damage over time that ultimately leads to terrible conditions like asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and others. Some industrial workers have even sued over these illnesses and others, and some have even won their cases, getting both justice and compensatory damages.
Industrial workers cover a broad spectrum of people who do the work to produce materials. They mostly work in large factories or plants using raw materials that are refined and made into products. Industrial workers may be foremen or supervisors, manual laborers, machinists, welders, millwrights, smelters, metal workers, and mechanics. They work in places that may contain asbestos to protect against the heat of manufacturing and refining materials, but they may also work with materials that are made with asbestos.
Asbestos in Industrial Settings
Asbestos has long been used in a variety of building materials and industrial applications. It is a mineral that has unique properties like resistance to heat and fire, strength, and resistance to chemical reactions. In an industrial plant there is a good chance that heat is involved in the processes and that fire is a possible danger. These plants were built with asbestos materials to reduce heat loss, to protect workers from heat, and to prevent fires from breaking out. Plants may also include asbestos insulation, pipe wrappings, cement, flooring, ceiling tiles, adhesives, and more.
In addition to the materials of the plant and its machinery that contained asbestos, some plants manufactured materials that contained asbestos. For instance, a plant that made cement with asbestos in it or asbestos insulation may have had asbestos in the building, in the machinery, and in the materials being used directly by the workers. Older workers are more at risk for developing asbestos-related illnesses because they worked in settings without regulations in place. Today, the use of asbestos is regulated and employers are legally bound to follow certain safety rules to protect workers from asbestos.
How Industrial Workers Are Exposed to Asbestos
Older workers were much more likely to be exposed to asbestos in an industrial setting than those working in plants today. Those who worked in the years prior to 1980 did not have the benefit of regulations and restrictions, or of workplace safety rules regarding asbestos. Workers that handled asbestos as part of the industrial process may have been most at risk. Even in plants that did not work directly with asbestos, workers could be exposed through the machinery and the building. When cutting into insulation or other materials to make repairs, fibers of asbestos would have gotten into the air.
Workers may also have been exposed through the use of protective equipment. Especially those workers in industrial settings that used high temperatures, like smelting or refining ore, were likely to have worn gloves, aprons, and other protective clothing that contained asbestos. In very hot environments the asbestos being used to insulate and protect workers could actually warp and be damaged, increasing the risk that fibers could get into the air. Even workers today in industrial plants are at risk of asbestos exposure. Most at risk are workers that have to repair and maintain older equipment and building components that still contain asbestos that may be disturbed by repairs.
Research bears out the assumption that industrial workers are exposed to asbestos and that this exposure puts them at a greater risk for certain illnesses than workers who are not exposed. For instance, one study found that men and women working in industrial insulation or working as machine operators were at the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma. In a group of more than 7,000 industrial workers, more than 650 died of peritoneal cancer, a rare type of mesothelioma that attacks the lining of the abdominal cavity.
Another study investigated machinery erectors and millwrights in the New York area. Nearly half of these 110 workers had abnormalities of the pleura, the tissue in the chest cavity that develops tumors in the most common form of mesothelioma. Several workers also had thickening of the pleura and several had symptoms of interstitial lung disease. The findings were consistent with exposure to asbestos. In another study, workers in a plant that manufactured asbestos cement were found to have a significantly greater risk of developing mesothelioma than the general population and most were not diagnosed with this cancer until 40 years after working in the industrial setting.
Industrial workers that have found themselves ill years after working in plants may be facing asbestos-related health problems. These workers may choose to file a lawsuit if they believe that someone was negligent in their illnesses.
In a similar case a welder and mechanic worked with asbestos-containing products for 12 years in an industrial setting. He also wore protective gear that contained asbestos and eventually became ill as a result. He died before the conclusion of his case and the final verdict was not made public, although it did go in the worker’s favor. Lawsuits like these are the right of any industrial worker who has been exposed to asbestos because of products, materials, and equipment. If these workers were not warned of the risks or they were not given the necessary training and safety gear to be protected from asbestos, they were put at risk of getting very sick later in life.
If you worked in an industrial plant and are now struggling with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related condition, you have rights. If you are a current worker in a plant, make yourself aware of your rights regarding a safe workplace. Adhering to regulations for how asbestos is used and how workers are supposed to be protected from it is the responsibility of employers. If your employer has let you down, you may be able to make a case to get compensatory damages or workers compensation.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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