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Asbestos Cancer Victim Gives Advice on Workplace Safety for Tech Students

As young men and women choosing to work in skilled trades you have bright futures ahead. 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. I didn’t know at the time that I was working around asbestos.

Today I am suffering the consequences of that exposure, living with a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Although the risks of asbestos exposure are not nearly as great as they were in my day, I want to address young people going into trades that could include working around asbestos. I want you to have the information I didn’t have. You can work safely in these trades, but you need to be aware asbestos. You should also know 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 used in a number of construction and industrial applications. It is mined from the Earth used because it is cheap and has special useful properties. Because asbestos resists fire and heat, insulates from electricity, and is strong but lightweight, it has been used in building and ship construction. This material can be found often in insulation, heating and cooling systems, electrical systems, flooring materials, roofing materials, adhesives, and more.

Asbestos contains small fibers which can come loose and become airborne. When you inhale airborne asbestos fibers, they can get lodged in the tissues, causing damage over many years. Not everyone will get sick from exposure to asbestos,. However, certain illnesses are nearly always caused by asbestos exposure. These illnesses include a progressive and incurable lung disease called asbestosis and the deadly 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. This meant a lot of hard, physical work tearing down buildings. Sometimes we worked with our hands, pulling insulation out of walls. Other times, we used sledge hammers and saws to break buildings down.

These buildings were full of asbestos. It was in insulation in walls and ceilings, around pipes and ducts, in 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 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, 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. Now, thanks to greater awareness of asbestos dangers, chances are you won’t be exposed or get sick.

Since the middle 1970s, there have been regulations and bans to make working with and around asbestos safer. However, some risk remains.  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.

Construction workers

The construction industry has used the most asbestos-containing materials over the years. There are now limits on what materials can have asbestos and how 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 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 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.

Plumbers

Plumbers

Within the construction industry, specialized trade workers may also be at risk for asbestos exposure. This includes plumbers. Insulation around pipes is 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 tiny asbestos fibers.

Electricians

Electricians

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.

Mechanics

Mechanics

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 technicians

HVAC technicians

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. This equipment must be made of material that does not allow asbestos fibers to penetrate. It is not enough to simply have protective clothing. You must also be trained to use it safely.

Respirators may also be necessary for protection against asbestos exposure. Not all jobs that occur around or with asbestos require this, but be sure you know if your job involves enough contact with the material to make a respirator necessary. It is also important to be trained to properly use a respirator.

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. However, these agencies 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 asbestos in old and new materials, proper safety precautions must be taken.

Know your rights accorded by OSHA and be aware that future employers should follow appropriate safety procedures and workplace precautions. Don’t be afraid to speak out or contact OSHA if you work in an environment you don’t believe is safe.

Working in 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.

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