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Power Plant Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Power plants have been sources of asbestos exposure in workers in the past and still continue to put workers at risk to some degree. These large facilities employ hundreds of people. Because they generate so much heat, power plants have long used asbestos for insulation and fire proofing. Before the dangers of asbestos to human health were fully realized, these plants contained extensive asbestos materials.

Past power plant workers are now being diagnosed with conditions related to asbestos, like mesothelioma, and current workers need to take note and recognize that asbestos continues to be a risk. These workers should be aware of safety regulations, equipment, and procedures related to asbestos. Research backs up the fact that these workers have been put at risk and lawsuits are getting justice for some of them.

Power Plants and Workers

Power plants are large, power- and electricity-generating facilities that supply power to grids that may cover local or regional areas. Plants may use varying sources of energy to generate electricity, such as coal, natural gas, and oil, all fossil fuels that are burned to boil water and generate steam that turns turbines. Power plants may also use more renewable sources of energy like hydroelectric plants or those that use solar or wind energy. There are also nuclear power plants that use nuclear reactions to generate heat and steam.

The role that power plants play in society is crucial. Without them we would be without light and heat in most of our buildings. The workers in these plants are likewise important. Power plants employ hundreds of people, from scientists and engineers to maintenance workers, pipefitters, and electricians. There are workers that operate the systems and those that make repairs. It is the latter group, the blue collar workers who have been put at the greatest risk of being exposed to asbestos on the job.

Asbestos in Power Plants

Most power plants use heat from burning fossil fuels or nuclear reactions to generate electricity, but this also generates a lot of heat. That heat needs to be contained or the plant will not generate electricity very efficiently. There are also health risks and dangers associated with so much heat. It can lead to burns, fires, and explosions.

Before the risks of asbestos were well known, power plants were covered in asbestos to insulate pipes, boilers, and other equipment as a way to keep the heat in. Fireproofing was also important and asbestos resists both heat and fire. Asbestos was used in many of the building materials of power plants, including wall panels, boilers, gaskets, cement, pipe insulation, fire bricks, tape and adhesive, and even protective equipment like fire blankets and gloves.

How Plant Workers Could Be Exposed

Exposure to asbestos was much more of a concern before 1980, when power plants used asbestos extensively and regulations were yet to be put into place. Today, asbestos has either been removed from power plants or it has been contained in such a way that makes it safe to work around. This does not mean that current workers are completely safe from asbestos. There are still many ways in which they can be exposed and examples of it happening.

The workers at greatest risk were and still are blue collar workers, particularly those workers who make repairs and perform maintenance duties at power plants. These workers are at risk because they may disturb and expose asbestos while working. Exposing contained asbestos allows fibers to get into the air where they can be inhaled by the worker. This exposure can ultimately lead to illnesses like mesothelioma, especially when it occurs multiple times. White collar workers, like supervisors, have been put at risk of exposure in power plants as well. If ventilation is not good in a power plant, exposed fibers of asbestos could be inhaled by anyone on the premises.

These risks were greater in past decades, but even today power plant workers can be exposed to asbestos. In 2011, for example, a group of contract repair workers were exposed to asbestos at a nuclear power plant in Surry, Virginia. The workers cut into a pipe, which sent insulating fibers of asbestos to become airborne. The company responsible for the pipes was fined for not labeling them correctly.

Studies Prove Power Workers at Risk for Asbestos-Related Health Conditions

A study from 1979 surveyed 55 workers in power plants, all of whom were known to have been exposed to asbestos on the job. Air samples taken on site confirmed that there were asbestos fibers present. The group of workers displayed symptoms and markers for asbestos-related health concerns. These included asbestos fibers in their sputa, thickening and hardening of the pleura, chest pains, voice hoarseness, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

In another study conducted with German power plant workers, thousands of workers were found to have been exposed to asbestos over a period of 20 years on average. The study did not examine the health repercussions, but found that more than half of the workers had directly handled asbestos. Another study looked at Italian power plant workers and found that lung cancer and mesothelioma were present in them at greater rates than the general population.

Lawsuits

Workers at power plants that were exposed to asbestos face the possibility of being later diagnosed with debilitating health conditions, like mesothelioma. These workers expected and had a right to a reasonably safe workplace, with controls and safety measures in place to prevent exposure to asbestos fibers. When employers and the companies making asbestos-containing materials failed, workers have suffered and some have filed asbestos lawsuits.

In one of these cases, the wife of a power plant worker died from mesothelioma because of secondary exposure to asbestos. He worked at Port Everglades Power Plant in Florida, and decades later, as his wife became ill, he recalled working in a lot of dust that adhered to his clothing. His wife washed his clothes and was exposed in that way. In investigations related to the lawsuit the asbestos was found to have come from a turbine in the power plant. The final result of the suit was not made public.

Power plant workers have been exposed to asbestos in the past and many of them are suffering today because of it. Current workers still have some risks of being exposed and later suffering the same illnesses, like mesothelioma. These workers have a right to a safe workplace and a right to sue if they are not provided with such and become ill as a result.

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