In this podcast, Paul Kelley from the law firm of Satterley and Kelley PLLC talks about asbestos exposure at U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania. He explains who was exposed, the consequences of exposure, and what to do if you have mesothelioma.
John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky personal injury law firm, Satterley & Kelley, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Today we’re talking about asbestos exposure at U.S. Steel facilities in Pennsylvania. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Hi, John. How are you doing today?
John: Good, thanks. Paul. What is U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania?
Paul: Well, I think at one point, U.S. Steel was one of the biggest companies in America, started in the 1800s, and they produced, quite frankly, most of the steel throughout the United States at one point in time over the last 100 years or so. It’s diversified and has had more competitors, but it’s still a big operation that owns lots of steel plants throughout the country, and particularly in the Pennsylvania, a lot in Pittsburgh. And it makes steel, and has made steel for a long time, and it makes steel for lots of different industries.
And really, through its various plants, it makes all kinds of different steel. Sometimes it makes steel for itself to make something else. Sometimes it makes steels for other customers so that those customers can make a product. But if you ever watch The Godfather Part II, there’s a scene where they’re talking about the size of their criminal organization.
I’m not saying that U.S. Steel is a criminal organization, but that’s what the basis of the movie was. And Hyman Roth makes a remark that they were as big as U.S. Steel. And in 1950-something when that was being talked about, that meant a lot to a lot of people because U.S. Steel was literally one of the biggest companies. It was the Amazon, the Microsoft of its time.
John: Sure. So how is U.S. Steel related to asbestos and mesothelioma cancer cases?
Paul: Sure. So what we’ve seen is that U.S. Steel operated a lot of plants, and I’ll focus today for the purpose of our conversation on the Pittsburgh area. And there was a series of plants there that made various, or played various roles in the processing, and manufacturing and production of steel. Those plants were typically built almost 100 years ago, or the ’40s and ’50s, and they were built at a time when asbestos was a very prevalent material that was utilized for a lot of different things.
It was utilized for asbestos insulation on pipes and steam lines and hot water lines and chemical processes. It was used to insulate tanks that held chemicals. It was very commonly used as an insulated material for the giant ovens that made the steel. These ovens are furnaces that were in these facilities. I mean, they got thousands degrees hot, and they were insulated with fire brick, they were insulated with refractory material, and all those materials at one time or another that contained asbestos probably before 1980, and people would be exposed.
Steel plants, again, were so hot, and it was dangerous. I mean, you could be burned by something that’s thousands of degrees hot. So there was a lot of protective clothing that was made back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that was actually made of asbestos. Asbestos gloves, asbestos aprons, coats, welders, or welding coats that were made from asbestos. They used welding blankets to protect them from sparks that were made from asbestos. The welding rods at one point were made from asbestos.
There was something there called hot tops that were used during the steel manufacturing process that covered these molds. And when heat rose, it captured all of the impurities from the steel process because that was a big deal to make sure that there was no contamination of anything for the final product. And those hot tops were made from asbestos, and when they got really hot, they hashed up, and then blew a lot of asbestos into the air.
Some of these plants, well all these plants had railroad tracks that ran through the facilities for the purposes of bringing raw materials and transporting finished product out of the plants all day, every day. And those trains had asbestos brakes that were attached to them. They had things like boilers and that type of equipment, and those things were insulated with asbestos at one point in time.
Ceiling tile, floor tiles throughout the plants. There probably were more than a thousand different products that were installed into a plant or these various plants at U.S. Steel prior to the 1980s that contained asbestos, and I’ve touched on a lot of them.
There were gaskets, there were motors, these big giant motors that were insulated with asbestos. They had asbestos-containing wire, and there was just, there was so much there. And there have been dozens, if not hundreds of people who have contracted either mesothelioma or some other type of asbestos disease that worked at that plant, or those various plants.
And I think we’ve mentioned this before in prior podcasts that we’ve done that mesothelioma is a pretty rare disease, there’s only 3,000 diagnoses every year in the United States. And so it’s pretty rare to see one mesothelioma from one job site, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. I mean, it’s quite frankly, it’s a catastrophe.
John: Right, right. The chances of it being just a coincidence that these seven people got mesothelioma and they all worked at the same place, just almost impossible that would be the case unless that they got their exposure from working at that facility.
Paul: Absolutely, absolutely.
John: Yeah. So what are some of the typical employees at U.S. Steel who might have been exposed to asbestos, and might have developed, or might in the future developed mesothelioma? Based on what you just said, it sounds like it could be a very wide range of workers.
Paul: Oh, very much so. I mean, again, back in the ’50s and ’60s, U.S. Steel employed thousands of people between these various plants. Some of these plants were the Clairton Works and Duquesne, I mean, there were several others in the area. It took a lot of people to maintain the plant. It took a lot of people to produce the steel.
And so we see bricklayers, we see electricians, we see millwrights, we see pipefitters, and plumbers. We see people that were just generally in maintenance. We see people like the boilermakers and the furnace operators, the people that were in these rooms with all this equipment every day, all day.
We see a lot of outside contractors that would come in like insulators and outside bricklayers and pipefitters. But the people that maintain the plant, we have represented people that were really not hands-on-related with any of the products. People that were employed to monitor, they weren’t really supervisors, but they were monitoring what other employees were doing so they could attempt to come up with a more efficient process. The train operators and the people that came in all day, every day.
One of the products I forgot to tell you about, they had these big dust collectors, they would be located in the various parts of these plants, and these dust collectors would collect all kinds of things. I mean, it was coal dust, and steel dust, and everything. But I mean, it’s impossible that they didn’t collect dust from the various ways that asbestos was released. So you’d have train operators or people that work for U.S. Steel that would roll through, and their job was to unload the dust collectors.
And I don’t know exactly how they do it today, but I guarantee it they don’t do it today the way they did it back then. Back then, they brought an open car in. And imagine when you empty the container in your vacuum cleaner and it’s got the little lever, and you just hold it over the trash can, and open it up, and it all falls out. And inevitably, you pull the lever too soon, and some of it falls on the floor, and you have to vacuum it up again.
John: Right. Or you get a big cloud of it coming up from the trash can and it goes in your face.
Paul: That’s right. And so what was happening is these giant dust collectors that were stories high and contained, I mean, lord knows how much dust was collected, and folks would empty those into open railroad cars. Yeah, it’s outdoor work, but I mean, you’re still somewhat enclosed when it’s occurring, and so there was dust exposure in that way.
So I would maintain that it really doesn’t matter what position you held. If you worked at the U.S. Steel facility, one of these steel manufacturing plants, probably prior to 1980, maybe even prior to 1990, there’s a very good chance that you were exposed to significant amounts of asbestos because it was just unavoidable.
John: Right. So if you think that you were exposed to asbestos at U.S. Steel, and now you have lung cancer, or asbestosis, or mesothelioma, what should you do?
Paul: Certainly you should contact a lawyer. It’s important to evaluate your rights. There were a lot of culpable parties that were responsible for contributing to your asbestos exposure. My experience with U.S. Steel and the plants that I’m familiar with in the Pittsburgh area is that people didn’t know. I mean, they didn’t know in the ’50s and ’60s what they were working with. I described a product earlier today, the hot tops. Nobody knew that those products contain asbestos. Now, the manufacturer of hot tops did and U.S. Steel did, but the workers that were exposed to those things, they didn’t know.
And so a common question that I get or a statement that’s made to me is, “Well, gosh, I just don’t know what asbestos I was exposed to when I worked at the plant. I didn’t think there was really anything there.” And then I asked, “Well, what’d you do?” I worked in the coke room.
The coke was a product that was made essentially to put into other furnaces to heat those furnaces up. And all those furnaces, there were dozens of them in these coke rooms, and all of those furnaces were lined with asbestos. All of them had to be done every year and have the materials pulled out and put back in. And so it’s like, “Well, were you around when they did any of that work?” “Oh, yeah, yeah. I was a pipefitter.” “Oh, well then, you worked a lot of gaskets, didn’t you?” Yeah. Well, those gaskets contain asbestos.
So I think it’s important to contact a lawyer who has experience with asbestos cases, who has experience with this particular type of exposure in these particular plants so that’s critical. It’s important to not speculate and start talking to your doctors and saying, “Well, I don’t really know where I was exposed or I don’t. I’m just guessing. Maybe I did some remodeling work somewhere.” Because at that point, if you don’t know, if you don’t know, it’s never good to just engage in rank speculation. We can help with that.
And it’s not anything other than the fact that you didn’t know when you worked there that all that stuff contained asbestos, but you know that you did all those jobs. You know that you removed gaskets. You know that you cracked into motors. You know that maybe you did brake work on trains. Maybe you participated in the tear down of furnaces and ovens and those sorts of things.
And so when you are able to put those things together for us, then we can connect them to what the asbestos-containing products were there. And unfortunately, this is too common of an experience. Sometimes you just have to sue the company before they’ll tell you what it is that you were exposed to, because they didn’t tell you back then.
So I think that’s very important. Probably even more important than that is always going to be getting your medical situation the best possible shape that you can get it in. We’ve discussed about this in other podcasts, but mesothelioma in particular is a very difficult diagnosis. It is almost universally a fatal diagnosis, but the medical treatment is so much better today than it ever used to be. So getting with the right doctors and medical providers and getting a medical plan that’s in the best interest of you, whether that’s surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, something else, there’s a lot of great doctors.
And in fact, for people who were exposed in the Pittsburgh area at some of these plants at U.S. Steel, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a fantastic place, and it has a lot of great doctors that have treated a lot of mesothelioma patients over the years and still continue to do so. Now, if you’ve been exposed someplace other than the Pittsburgh facilities, if it’s in Philadelphia, there’s some great facilities in Philadelphia and throughout the state. And then of course, U.S. Steel also has facilities in places outside Pennsylvania, but getting the medical situation under control to the best of your ability is critical.
Early diagnosis is a big deal. And I mentioned that because a lot of people, again, when they start developing that cough, they don’t really think anything of it, it’s going to go away. Well, if you’ve had a lifetime of asbestos exposure, that cough means a little bit more than it does to folks who have not had a lifetime of asbestos exposure. For me, it’s probably a cold that’ll go away in a few days. But if it’s something that’s been prevalent for a couple weeks, it’s a big problem, and it very well could be an early sign of lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Lung cancer is very treatable. A lot of people survive lung cancer. And if they develop that disease and it’s early enough, detected early enough, they can provide treatment and people can live long and happy life. Mesothelioma, not quite as positive of prognosis, but the earlier it’s detected, the better chance that doctors have to treat it. And while it’s rare, we do see people who have lived for 10, 15, 20 years following a diagnosis. And in those circumstances, universally, it’s always been people who have detected it early.
John: So if you know that you worked at U.S. Steel, and then again, you develop a cough, and maybe you don’t have some of those other typical cold symptoms like nasal congestion or something like that, and it’s only a cough, that could be a sign of it, and so just go see your doctor as soon as possible.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. And, of course, if it doesn’t go away, then that can be the sign of a bigger problem.
John: Right, right. So is there a statute of limitations in Pennsylvania on filing a case concerning asbestos exposure at U.S. Steel?
Paul: Yeah. So in Pennsylvania, it’s a two-year statute of limitations. It’s two years from the date of diagnosis, but there are some things that can extend it. You also have to know or should know what caused your disease. But a rule of thumb, two years from diagnosis is when you file a claim.
Two years is better than some states. Some states have a one-year, but it goes by quickly so time is of the essence, and It’s important to speak to an attorney about your rights immediately so that they can hit the ground rolling, and try to hold those accountable for causing this terrible injury.
John: And in Pennsylvania, are you able to directly file a claim against U.S. Steel itself, or do you have to go after some of the manufacturers of the different products that were used at U.S. Steel?
Paul: So under Pennsylvania law, generally speaking, as the law stands today, you can sue U.S. Steel. The caveat is that your diagnosis has to come more than 300 weeks after your last exposure. 300 weeks is less than 10 years. The shortest latency period is 10 years, latency meaning the time from first exposure to diagnosis. And so a lot of people just are not diagnosed within 300 weeks of their last exposure.
So if the last exposure’s more than 300 weeks before diagnosis, then you can file a case directly against U.S. Steel in the tort system. If it somehow is within that 300 weeks, then you’re limited to workers’ compensation laws in which you can get some compensation, but it’s not quite the same as what you can get within the tort system. And then on top of that, yes, you can file against manufacturers and contractors, other companies that were responsible for putting the asbestos into the plant.
John: All right, well, that’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks, John.
John: And for more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley & Kelley at satterleylaw.com or call 855-385-9532.