Asbestos Cancer Victim Gives Advice on Workplace Safety for Tech Students
As young men and women choosing to work in the skilled trades you have bright futures ahead of you. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, and other skilled workers will always be in demand. My name is Virgil Anderson and I spent my career working in construction, demolition, and automotive work. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was working around asbestos.
Today I am suffering the consequences of that exposure and living with a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Although the risks of being exposed to asbestos are not nearly as great as they were in my day, I want to address young people going into the kinds of trades that could include working around asbestos. I want you to have the information that I didn’t have. You can work safely in any of these trades, but you need to be aware that asbestos may be around you and that you have a right to a safe workplace and proper training for recognizing and working safely with asbestos.
Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can come loose and get into the air.
Asbestos and its Hazards
Asbestos is a mineral that has been used in a number of construction and industrial applications. It is mined out of the ground and used because it is cheap and because of its special properties: it resists fire and heat, it insulates from electricity, and it is strong but lightweight. It has been used mostly in the construction of buildings and ships, in insulation, heating and cooling systems, electrical systems, flooring materials, roofing materials, adhesives, and more. It has also been used in automobiles and airplanes.
Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can come loose and get into the air. When you inhale these fibers they can get lodged in the tissues in your body and cause damage over many years. Not everyone will get sick from exposure to asbestos, but certain illnesses are nearly always caused by asbestos fibers. These include a progressive and incurable lung disease called asbestosis and the deadly type of cancer known as mesothelioma.
It is possible to work around asbestos and be safe with the right precautions, safety equipment, and training, but no one told me about it.
My Story and Struggle with Cancer
I was born and raised in Williamson, West Virginia. Starting in high school I worked in demolition and excavations, which meant a lot of hard, physical work tearing down buildings. Sometimes we worked with our hands, pulling insulation out of walls, and other times we used sledge hammers and saws to break buildings down.
These buildings were full of asbestos: in the insulation in the walls and ceilings, around pipes and ducts, in the heating and cooling systems, and around electrical wiring. We didn’t know any better at the time, but all that ripping, tearing, and sawing sent fibers of asbestos into the air where it could stay for days. I worked day after day in clouds of dust that included asbestos fibers.
Later, I worked in the automotive industry for a company that installed, removed, and repaired hood liners. I also worked on brakes and clutches, repairing and replacing components like brake shoes and drums. All of these automotive parts contained asbestos. Years of working in that environment, tearing and cutting hood liners and being around the dust that comes out when you take apart brakes and clutches, exposed me to even more asbestos fibers.
Now, at 50, I am living with asbestos cancer because of all this workplace exposure. I was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the type of asbestos cancer that attacks the tissue around the lungs. One year after my diagnosis I went from being active and healthy to sick and immobile. I am very limited in what I can do. I can’t work, and even walking is difficult. I have to use a portable oxygen tank to get around. I am undergoing chemotherapy, but I am not a good candidate for surgery because the cancer has already spread to my lymph nodes.
All those years I spent working around asbestos, and I never knew what the risks were. I wish now that I had been warned. It is possible to work around asbestos and be safe with the right precautions, safety equipment, and training, but no one told me about it. But I’m hopeful that by getting my story out there I can warn others of the risks of being around asbestos and help keep people safe.
Always be aware of the materials and safety procedures being used on a job site.
Asbestos in the Skilled Trades
With a career in a skilled trade, you can look forward to job security and a good income. And, thanks to the greater awareness we have today of the dangers of asbestos, chances are you won’t be exposed or get sick.
Since the middle 1970s there have been regulations and bans put in place to make working with and around asbestos safer, but there are still some risks. As you make your way in this career, be informed about asbestos, where you might encounter it, and what your rights are for a safe workplace and exposure limits.
The construction industry has used the most asbestos-containing materials over the years. There are now limits on what materials can have asbestos in them and how that asbestos must be contained to keep the fibers from contaminating the air. The biggest risks for exposure in this industry are in older buildings, built before the 1970s. Any kind of repair, maintenance, or remodeling work done in older buildings has the potential to expose workers to asbestos by disturbing old insulation, flooring, drywall, adhesives, ceiling panels, and roofing.
Working with new construction materials may also put you at risk. Not all asbestos products have been banned and working in any area of construction could mean running into it. Roofers, plasterers, painters, insulators, carpenters, drywall installers, and masons are all likely to work with products that contain asbestos.
Within the construction industry, specialized trade workers may also be at risk for asbestos exposure. This includes plumbers. Insulation around pipes was a major source of asbestos in older buildings. Doing work in an older building means you are likely to encounter asbestos insulation. Cutting into that old insulation could expose you to fibers.
Electricians are in a similar situation as plumbers. Older electrical wiring may be insulated with materials that contain asbestos. Electricians may also have to disturb other materials, for instance by drilling into a wall, to get to the electrical wiring in an older building. In either case, they may become exposed to asbestos fibers.
As with my experience working with cars, mechanics today are still at risk of being exposed to asbestos. Disk brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, friction materials, clutch facings, gaskets, and components in automatic transmissions may contain asbestos, even in new cars. Asbestos has not been banned from these car parts, so if you work as a mechanic, taking them apart, repairing, and installing them, you could be exposed to asbestos.
HVAC workers, like others in the construction trades, are put at risk of asbestos exposure every time they work on an older home or building. Heating and cooling requires a lot of insulation, which means that older systems may still be wrapped in asbestos. Disturbing this insulation can send fibers airborne.
Even if you work in one of these skilled trades and do not handle asbestos directly, you could be exposed to asbestos simply by being on the work site. For example if you are a plumber installing new pipes without any asbestos, you may be working with roofers overhead installing asbestos roofing felt. Any mistakes they make working with it could lead to your exposure. Not handling asbestos directly does not ensure your safety. Always be aware of the materials and safety procedures being used on a job site.
It is not enough to simply have the protective clothing. You must also be trained in how to use it safely.
Asbestos Protective Equipment
Even if you end up working around asbestos, you can be kept safe from exposure by using the right protective equipment. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has set requirements for employers to provide this equipment if exposure risks meet a certain level. This includes coveralls to protect clothing, head coverings, foot coverings, and gloves, made of material that does not allow asbestos fibers to penetrate. It is not enough to simply have the protective clothing. You must also be trained in how to use it safely.
It may also be necessary to use respirators for protection against asbestos exposure. Not all jobs that occur around or with asbestos require this, but be sure you find out if your job involves enough contact with the material to make a respirator necessary. Of course, with respirators it is also important to be trained in how to use them properly.
The risks of asbestos exposure are much lower than they were in my day, but you still need to be smart and aware.
Asbestos Regulations and Bans
The federal government put regulations in place through various agencies to protect people from asbestos exposure, but stopped short of a total ban on the material. Laws like the Clean Air Act and agencies like OSHA, have set exposure limits and workplace safety regulations, but as long as there is still asbestos in old and new materials, the proper safety precautions must be taken.
Know your rights accorded by OSHA and be aware that all future employers are supposed to follow the appropriate safety procedures and workplace precautions. Don’t be afraid to speak out or to contact OSHA if you end up working in an environment that you don’t believe is safe or with a boss that is not following regulations.
Working in the skilled trades offers you a wonderful future, but it is important to remember to keep yourself safe. The risks of asbestos exposure are much lower than they were in my day, but you still need to be smart and aware so you can enjoy a long and healthy life.