Labor Unions and Asbestos Exposure
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Labor unions protect the interests of their members, protecting them from unsafe working conditions, including those that involve asbestos exposure. Unions are essential for raising awareness among members and advocating for their safety.
How Unions Protect Workers from Asbestos
Although strictly regulated, asbestos can still be found in some workplaces, requiring proper protection for those working around it.
Unions are organizations that fight for safety, often in the form of proper safety training and protective gear. They also stop employers from violating federal worker safety rules.
Weak unions put the health of workers at serious risk, and the incidence of mesothelioma and other illnesses could increase.
How Does Asbestos Harm Workers?
Asbestos is a natural fibrous mineral that was used in a variety of industries for many years. It was commonly used for many applications because it is inexpensive, readily available, and has several useful qualities. These qualities include lightweight durability and resistance to heat, fire, and electricity.
Workers in the past were put at serious risk of exposure. Workers today are still at risk of exposure when they encounter asbestos in older materials.
Unfortunately, many industries used asbestos for many years before its dangers were well understood, and some even after it became common knowledge. When tiny asbestos fibers get into the body, they can become lodged in tissues and cause damage.
Asbestos fibers damage cells and cause illnesses such as:
- Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare but often deadly cancer that affects the thin layers of tissue surrounding organs in the body. It most often affects the pleura around the lungs. Mesothelioma can also occur around the heart (pericardial) or in the abdominal cavity (peritoneal). Mesothelioma is normally diagnosed decades after asbestos exposure and has often advanced beyond effective treatment. It is aggressive and almost impossible to cure.
- Lung cancer: Asbestos fibers lodged in the chest cavity may also cause lung cancer. Because mesothelioma is rare, it is often misdiagnosed as lung cancer.
- Asbestosis: Asbestosis is the scarring of lung tissue caused by asbestos fibers. It is not malignant but can ultimately be fatal. It progresses over time, making breathing increasingly difficult, and there is no cure.
Asbestos exposure can also cause pleural plaques and cause or contribute to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and many types of cancer.
Types of Asbestos
Different types of asbestos can harm people in different ways:
- Chrysotile (white) asbestos is the most common type of asbestos and was commonly used in construction materials, pipe insulation, gaskets, car clutches, and brakes.
- Amosite (brown) asbestos was most often used in cement or insulating board.
- Crocidolite (blue) asbestos was used in steam engines and spray-on coatings and insulation.
- Anthophyllite and tremolite were not used much in commercial products, but often contaminate other types of asbestos.
All asbestos is dangerous, but brown and blue asbestos cause the most damage to human health.
History of Asbestos Use in the American Workplace
Millions of American workers risked asbestos exposure and subsequent illness during its widespread industrial use. Because of its unique properties, asbestos was commonly used in fireproofing, insulation, and materials that needed to be strengthened.
Industries that used asbestos include construction, shipbuilding, manufacturing, automotive production, power production and distribution, oil refining, and many others.
Asbestos was regularly used to manufacture cement, insulation, car parts, gaskets, fire-protective clothing, plasters, adhesives, and many other commercial and industrial products.
Federal Asbestos Regulations
Although asbestos was used for many years, it wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to understand its damaging effects on the human body. Even so, federal regulations were not enacted or enforced until the 1970s.
Regulating agencies include:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
EPA regulations manage school inspections, asbestos clean-up, and acceptable amounts of asbestos in the air and water.
OSHA regulations protect workers by setting permissible asbestos exposure limits as well as standards for asbestos use on construction sites.
The MSHA regulates exposure limits and respiratory protective gear for miners who could encounter asbestos deposits.
Which Union Workers Are Most Impacted by Asbestos?
Because asbestos was used so extensively in a number of industries, many unions and their members have been affected. Some of these include:
- International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
- United Steelworkers Union
- International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers
- United Auto Workers
- Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
- United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO
- United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers
- International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers
- Utility Workers Union of America
- International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO
While the risks are much lower, members of teachers’ unions also face dangers from asbestos. Many old school buildings contain asbestos. After years of deterioration, asbestos materials can cause harmful exposure in teachers and other staff.
How Do Labor Unions Protect Workers from Asbestos?
A labor union protects the interests of workers. This includes fighting for fair wages, decent benefits, and safe working conditions. This also includes safety from the harms of asbestos. Businesses often put profits before people, and it is the union’s role to fight back and demand safe workplaces.
Unions have long fought asbestos, calling for bans or better safety gear and training, often with mixed results. For many years union voices were not heard. However, today many improve workplaces and even change laws.
International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators
One of the earliest unions negatively affected by asbestos was the National Association of Heat, Frost and General Insulators and Asbestos Workers of America, which formed in 1903. Asbestos is no longer a part of the union’s name, but it affected these workers for decades.
Insulation was the most important product made with asbestos during the years of peak use. Insulation workers during that time could not avoid asbestos exposure.
The union representing these workers was instrumental in bringing the dangers of asbestos to the attention of the medical community, the government, and numerous industries. It was responsible for many safety improvements across industries that used asbestos.
United Steelworkers Union
The United Steelworkers Union recently lobbied Congress to amend federal laws to better protect workers. The union believes current laws do not effectively protect workers from toxic chemicals and compounds, including asbestos.
The International Trade Union Confederation
The International Trade Union Confederation recently urged a ban on the international chrysotile asbestos trade.
Chrysotile asbestos is the most common type used in commercial industries and products. The group cites the harm asbestos continues to cause workers around the world, especially in poor countries.
Washington State Council of Fire Fighters
Firefighters are at risk of asbestos exposure because they enter and work in buildings being destroyed by fire. The destruction releases a wide range of harmful substances, including asbestos.
The firefighters’ union in Washington won a 2011 victory for workers in Everett. It helped members settle with the city to receive lifetime medical monitoring for asbestos-related illnesses.
In this case, the city was negligent in exposing firefighters to asbestos. The Everett firefighters conducted training in city-owned buildings riddled with asbestos. The city knew about the asbestos.
Because asbestos is still used and found in older facilities, workers still need protection. Unions have been criticized, but have proven effective in establishing safer working conditions, better training, proper safety gear, improved medical care, and employer accountability. If unions continue to decline, harm from asbestos may increase.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
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.