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Labor unions were originally organized to protect their members, workers in various trades from pipefitters to teachers. In recent years unions have gotten a lot of pushback, with employers in many industries, as well as policy makers, trying to minimize or even eliminate them. The safety of workers is on the line, though, and that includes safety in the face of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is regulated but it is still found in a number of workplaces, and workers still need to be protected from it. Unions advocate for workplace safety from training to protective gear, and help to keep employers from violating federal safety rules for workers. If unions continue to lose power, the health of workers could be at serious risk and the incidence of mesothelioma and other illnesses could increase.

Asbestos, Mesothelioma, and Other Illnesses

Asbestos is a group of natural minerals that are typically made of small fibers that can break free and become part of dust in the air or on surfaces. Asbestos was mined for many years and used in almost all types of industrial settings. It was popular for decades because not only is it abundant, but asbestos has unique properties: strong, but lightweight, durable, and chemical, heat, fire, and electricity resistant.

Unfortunately asbestos was used for many years before it became well known that the tiny fibers that become airborne or settle on surfaces were being inhaled and ingested by workers and causing serious illnesses. When the fibers get into the body, they don’t pass out easily and more often get lodged in tissues. Once there the fibers cause damage at the cellular level and that damage can lead to illnesses:

  • Mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare but very serious type of cancer that affects the thin layer of tissue surrounding the organs in the body. Most often affected is 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 occurred and in later stages. 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 so rare, even among people exposed to asbestos, it is often misdiagnosed as lung cancer.
  • Asbestosis. Asbestosis is a scarring of lung tissue caused by asbestos fibers, but it is not malignant like lung cancer or mesothelioma. The scarring is ultimately fatal, though. It progresses over time, making breathing more and more difficult, and there is no cure.

There are several different types of asbestos that cause varying amounts of harm to workers. Chrysotile (white) asbestos is most common and was used in a lot of construction materials, pipe insulation, gaskets, and car clutches and brakes. Amosite (brown) asbestos was most often used in cement or insulating board. Crocidolite (blue) was used in steam engines and in spray on coatings and insulation. Anthophyllite and tremolite were never used very much in commercial products, but often contaminate other types of asbestos. All are harmful, but among those with commercial uses, brown and blue asbestos are most dangerous to human health.

Asbestos Use in the American Workplace

Many millions of American workers have been put at risk for asbestos exposure and resulting illness over decades of use of this mineral across industries. Because of its special properties, asbestos was used in fireproofing materials, insulating materials, and in materials that needed to be made stronger and more durable. Industries that used asbestos include construction, shipbuilding, manufacturing, automotive production, power production and distribution, oil refining, and many others. Asbestos was found in cement, insulation, car parts, gaskets, fire-protective clothing, plasters, adhesives, and many other commercial and industrial products.

Federal Asbestos Regulations

It wasn’t until the 1960s that people really began to understand how harmful asbestos was, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that federal agencies put regulations in place to protect workers and others. These agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The EPA has laws that regulate how schools should be inspected for asbestos and abated and how much asbestos is acceptable in the air and water. OSHA has regulations in place that protect workers by setting permissible asbestos exposure limits and standards for the use of asbestos on construction sites. The MSHA regulates exposure limits and respiratory protective gear in miners that could be exposed to asbestos deposits.

Unions Impacted by Asbestos

Asbestos was used so extensively and in so many different industries, that many unions and their workers have been impacted over the years. Some of these include:

  • International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
  • International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers
  • Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
  • United Steelworkers Union
  • United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO
  • United Auto Workers
  • 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

The Role of Unions in Protecting Workers

The role of a labor union is to protect the best interests of workers, and for many people that means ensuring fair wages and benefits and good working conditions. It also means ensuring that workers are provided with workplaces that are safe, and that includes being safe from the harms of asbestos. Businesses often put profits ahead of worker safety and it is the role of the union to fight back and demand safe workplaces.

Unions have long been fighting against asbestos, calling for bans or sometimes just for better safety gear and training, with mixed results. For many years they weren’t heard, but in some cases the unions are getting safer workplaces for their members and even changing laws. An example is the work that has been done recently by the United Steelworkers Union, lobbying Congress to amend federal laws to better protect workers. The Union believes that current laws are not strong enough and don’t do enough to protect workers from any toxic chemical, including asbestos.

International unions are also hard at work trying to better protect workers from asbestos. The International Trade Union Confederation met recently to discuss and call for immediate action in stopping the international trade in chrysotile asbestos, the most common type used in commercial industries and products. The group cites the harm that asbestos is still causing to workers around the world, especially in developing countries.

Unions play a big role in keeping workers safe on the job, and with asbestos still being used and still found in older facilities, workers still need this protection. There has been a lot of backlash against unions in recent years, but these organizations have proven effective in getting workers better, safer conditions, better training, better safety gear, better medical care, and better accountability from employers. If unions continue to decline, it may be possible that harm from asbestos will increase.

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