Asbestos may not be as widely used or distributed as it once was, but it is still found in millions of buildings and locations throughout the United States – putting workers at risk of harmful asbestos exposure. Asbestos causes mesothelioma, a terminal type of cancer with no known cure. It is also associated with other serious cancers and diseases. Depending on your occupation, you may be at a higher risk of asbestos exposure than others.
How Great Is the Risk of Occupational Asbestos Exposure in the U.S.?
For many decades, asbestos was widely used across multiple industries. Before it was recognized as a known carcinogen in the 1970s, it was a popular substance used to manufacture many common products and materials. Asbestos was lauded for its natural durability, versatility and fire-resistant properties.
Unfortunately, this means millions of U.S. workers were continuously exposed to asbestos while on the job before safety regulations were enforced – and millions are still at risk today due to lingering asbestos fibers. Today, some workplaces involve actively using materials that contain small amounts of asbestos while others have it potentially present in a worker’s environment, such as work in older buildings.
The risk of occupational exposure to asbestos varies depending on the job and location. It is also important to note that someone outside of the field who is connected to the worker could be at risk of secondhand exposure – when asbestos is introduced to someone’s environment from traces of it on the worker’s clothing or belongings.
Construction and Demolition
One of the key uses of asbestos in the past was as a building material due to its resistance to heat and flame. This puts workers in construction trades at risk of asbestos exposure while on the job today. Anyone engaged in construction, demolition, renovation, masonry, carpentry, electrical, HVAC and repair work could be at risk of encountering asbestos in an older building.
If work needs to be done on a building that was built in the mid-1980s or earlier, there is a good chance that it contains asbestos materials. Asbestos may be found in drywall, insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, paints, adhesives, bricks, pipes, roof shingles, and anywhere else where fireproofing would be a concern.
Firefighters and Other First Responders
The risk of asbestos fibers being disturbed and becoming airborne also affects firefighters, first responders and others who are often the first at the scene of a disaster, such as a structural fire or collapse. During the terrorist attack of 9/11, for example, thousands of first responders were exposed to asbestos that had been released by the collapse of the twin towers, which were constructed before the ban on asbestos (source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Shipyard workers are at a higher risk of asbestos exposure due to asbestos being used in the shipbuilding industry because of its ability to resist corrosion and high temperatures. Ships and submarines are often insulated with asbestos, and asbestos-corrugated sheeting was used frequently in shipyard buildings. Anyone who works in a shipyard or on a ship as a maritime worker could be exposed to asbestos.
Asbestos has not been entirely banned in the United States.. Some products are still permitted to contain this carcinogen in small amounts, such as insulation materials, gaskets and brake pads. However, there is no safe amount of asbestos. Manufacturing any of these products can place those who work in the manufacturing facility or factory at risk of mesothelioma and other illnesses connected to asbestos.
People who worked in manufacturing plants that created asbestos products in the past, prior to the ban, are also at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases today, decades later. This includes textiles, insulation, building materials and fireproofing products. Workers at industrial and chemical plants, as well as metal workers, are also at risk of asbestos exposure based on the products they work with on a daily basis.
Automobiles and Transportation
The automotive industry still puts its workers at a high risk of asbestos exposure. This is because friction products, including automotive brake pads, gaskets, clutches, hoodliners, heat shields and other auto parts still contain asbestos. Working on older cars is even more dangerous, as there are higher odds of asbestos being used in parts. Anyone who regularly works on vehicles in the automotive or transportation industry could be at risk of asbestos exposure from these products.
Serving in any branch of the United States military comes with the possibility of inhaling or ingesting asbestos. Navy members could be exposed to asbestos when they live or work on ships or submarines that are insulated with this carcinogen. In other branches, a military member could be exposed to asbestos on construction job sites or while using contaminated products. Aircraft used by the Airforce and U.S. Navy could contain asbestos due to the materials used to insulate engines and electrical components.
Environmental exposure to asbestos is a risk for certain workers in the U.S., including those involved in mining or processing asbestos ore. The nature of these jobs puts miners at risk unless special precautions are taken, as could a natural disaster that releases asbestos fibers from where they occur naturally. Working or living near one of these locations could be enough to result in an asbestos-related illness or disease.
How to Prevent Asbestos Exposure in Your Workplace
If you work in an occupation that is at a high risk of asbestos exposure, you can take certain steps to protect yourself. Work with your employer to ensure your safety, such as by filing a complaint if you are not given adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as a respirator to protect you from inhaling asbestos fibers on the job.
There are laws in place – including standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – that your employer must follow to protect employees from asbestos. Use safety procedures when dealing directly with asbestos.
To prevent secondhand exposure among people you interact with outside of work, clean any contaminated clothing and shoes at the job site and shower before returning home. If you believe that you were exposed to asbestos while on the job and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos related disease, you may be eligible for financial compensation. Discuss the possibility of a workers’ compensation claim, personal injury lawsuit, or asbestos trust fund claim with an attorney at Bailey & Glasser, LLP for more information.