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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 27 million American workers were exposed to asbestos fibers in the air between 1940 and 1979. Workplace asbestos exposure in the past was much worse than it is today, now that we know the dangerous consequences and since federal and state agencies protected workers with regulations.
Workers today are still vulnerable to asbestos exposure and the consequences of inhaling the fibers, including mesothelioma. The number of workers exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos has declined, but is still significant. Those at greatest risk are in construction, especially in renovation and demolition of older buildings. Other workplaces that still put workers at risk of exposure include mines, factories, boiler rooms, ships and shipyards, mechanic shops, and more.
Regulations to Protect Workers from Asbestos
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began regulating asbestos exposure in workplaces in 1971. Over many years OSHA reduced the amount of asbestos exposure allowed, which protected workers and limited how many Americans were put at risk for mesothelioma and other illnesses. In addition to OSHA’s workplace safety measures, the Environmental Protection Agency banned asbestos in some products, reducing the total amount of asbestos in various workplaces and workplace materials.
Despite regulations to protect people from asbestos, this mineral is still found in many materials used in ships, buildings, cars, airplanes, and other materials. Even more of a risk, though, is the asbestos in older materials that continue to affect workers. Older workers, who were on job sites prior to the late 1970s, cannot be protected from past exposure. Many will continue to be diagnosed with conditions like mesothelioma that develop decades after asbestos exposure.
At-Risk Professions for Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos on work sites is down compared to decades ago, but there are still many jobs that are more likely to expose workers to this dangerous mineral. There are also jobs and work environments that in the past exposed workers who are still suffering the consequences today.
- Construction. Construction workers are among the most at-risk workers, in the past and today, for exposure to asbestos. The mineral was used in nearly every construction material, from roofing tiles to drywall compound to insulation. In the construction field, those workers at greatest risk do renovation and demolition. They can be exposed to asbestos when demolishing, removing, or maintaining older asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos is still used in some new construction materials, putting workers in new construction at risk as well.
- Industrial and factory workers. Workers in factories, machinists, certain types of mechanics, and insulators have all been put at risk of exposure, mostly in the past, but still sometimes today. Asbestos has been used in many products made in factories, including insulation, paper, textiles, and mechanical equipment. Workers who made these products and who still make them now may have been exposed to asbestos fibers.
- Firefighters and other emergency responders. Firefighters are put at risk of exposure because fire can destroy products that contain asbestos and cause the fibers to become airborne. In the past, firefighters actually wore safety equipment that contained asbestos because it resists fire better than other materials. Other emergency responders may also risk exposure when on the site of a burning building. One extreme example of this occurred on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center collapsed and set asbestos fibers airborne.
- Shipyard workers. Ships are among the most significant sources of asbestos. In shipbuilding, asbestos has been used to insulate and protect vessels from fire, so it was used in nearly every part of a ship. Workers building ships in shipyards, and those who worked aboard ships in boiler or engine rooms were at the greatest risk of exposure.
- Power plants and oil refineries. Power plants and refineries, like ships, also need fireproofing material. In the past, asbestos was used extensively in these settings. Today, workers in these industries are still at risk while doing maintenance or repair work and in the event that a disaster spreads asbestos into the air.
- Boiler workers. Workers who have assembled, repaired, maintained, or operated boilers have been put at risk of asbestos exposure. The hazard with boilers and boiler rooms comes from the extensive use of insulation needed in these environments. Asbestos was used in all types of insulation in the past and workers who spent time in boiler rooms decades ago may have the greatest risk of all professions of exposure to asbestos.
- Textile mills. Much of the asbestos risk from working in textile mills is past. Workers who made textiles before the 1980s were likely exposed and put at risk for mesothelioma. Today, textile factory workers still may be exposed through the equipment they use.
- Miners. Mining is a high-risk career for asbestos exposure because asbestos is a natural mineral found in the ground. Asbestos miners are at an obvious risk, but those working in other types of mines may still be exposed the mineral. For instance, vermiculite miners have been known to have been exposed.
Moderate Occupational Risk
Some careers today carry a more moderate to low risk of exposing workers to asbestos. The risks may be lower for these workers, but they are still in environments that contain asbestos, and there is really no safe level of exposure. Auto mechanics, for instance, work with car parts that still are allowed to use asbestos, as well as on older cars with asbestos parts. Hoodliners on older cars used asbestos for fire resistance, and today, brakes and clutches still contain asbestos that can become airborne during repairs.
Teachers are at a low risk of asbestos exposure today, thanks to federal regulations. However, in the past teachers were exposed to asbestos through school building drywall, soundproofing materials, insulation, floor tiles, pint, and ceiling tiles. Maintenance and repair work released fibers of asbestos into the air and put teachers at risk of inhaling those fibers. Today, teachers working in older school buildings are still at a low risk of exposure, although regulations are in place to either contain or abate existing asbestos.
Other careers that put workers at a low to moderate risk of asbestos exposure include aircraft mechanics, electricians, railroad workers, metal workers, cement and chemical plant workers, engineers, and blacksmiths. Anyone in a workplace that has any amount of asbestos must be aware of the risks of exposure and should be educated on how to stay safe around this material.
How Workers Can Protect Themselves
Health and safety regulations for all aspects of workplace safety are set by OSHA. They include limitations on exposure to asbestos and safety procedures to be followed by employers and workers in environments in which asbestos may be an issue. Workers should familiarize themselves with OSHA asbestos regulations, follow procedures and use safety equipment.
Workers who do not feel safe in their working environment because of asbestos should talk to their employers. Those who do not feel their employers are providing adequate safety measures, such as appropriate equipment, should contact OSHA. OSHA representatives take complaints and inspect work sites to ensure regulations are followed. All workers have a right to a safe workplace and if you feel you may be exposed to asbestos, you have a right to file a complaint and take steps to ensure your own safety.
Occupational exposure to asbestos is not just a risk of the past. It is true that federal regulations have improved working environments considerably, but modern workers in several industries are still at risk. It is still necessary to know the risks, to know what rights workers have in the workplace, and to be aware of and to follow all safety procedures regarding asbestos.
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.