Workers Most Exposed to Asbestos
Asbestos has been used for hundreds of years, and that continues today. Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer. That can happen to anyone with direct exposure (by having a particular occupation that used asbestos products) or indirectly by being in the same location or a family member who inhaled asbestos brought home on a worker’s clothes.
Asbestos had more than 3,000 commercial uses, according to a 1986 document published by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). It states most workers with exposure were in industries that used asbestos-containing products, including:
- Manufacturing asbestos products
- Automobile maintenance and repair
- Mining and milling asbestos
- Shipbuilding and repair
The article estimates that 17,700 workers were exposed to asbestos when manufacturing:
- Asbestos cement pipes
- Asbestos cement sheets
- Friction (brake) materials
- Floor coverings
- Asbestos paper products
- Packing and gaskets
- Paint, coatings, and sealants
- Asbestos textiles
This is just the start of those exposed. Countless more people worked with, applied, cut, shaped, and removed these products, resulting in asbestos exposure. Those working around them probably breathed in the fibers too.
The following are jobs and trades where high asbestos exposure was likely because workers used asbestos products themselves or were often around others who did.
Those building and repairing aircraft, helicopters, satellites, and spacecraft worked with asbestos products. For decades they were considered the best material for controlling high temperatures and noise. Asbestos was used in brake linings, noise control, electric line coatings, and engine soundproofing.
Brake linings were built with asbestos starting in the 1940s to control heat and prevent fires. Clutches in transmissions also contained asbestos.
Commercial ovens use high heat over prolonged periods. For years these ovens were lined with asbestos to keep flames inside and control how much heat escaped. Fibers could loosen and contaminate the air workers breathed.
Boilermakers and insulators were probably the trades most exposed to asbestos. Boilermakers assembled and repaired boilers, which powered large buildings, power plants, and ships. They were coated in asbestos to control their heat to make working around them more bearable. Asbestos products were applied to them, and the pipes connected to them. This insulation was torn off if repairs or maintenance were needed, then re-applied. Boilermakers’ tools and protective equipment also contained asbestos.
Carpenters are often the first on a worksite and the last to leave. They’re exposed to asbestos because they worked near where asbestos products were applied or removed. Work on renovation and demolition projects often involved buildings containing asbestos products.
They worked with asbestos-containing cement used to join various materials. They breathed in fibers when mixing dry cement powders and while removing old cement and brick structures.
Asbestos was used to insulate pipes and other equipment that generated or contained high heat. Workers applied this insulation and removed it when it became damaged or when maintenance or repairs were done.
Clay is a rock that may contain talc, a mineral often found mixed with asbestos. The clay could be contaminated with asbestos, and those working with it could be exposed to fibers. The jewelry-making process can involve soldering a clay-like blob to stick metal parts together. This blog was made of water mixed with asbestos.
For decades, asbestos was used in drywall boards, tape, and mixing compounds. Workers cut boards to fit areas, used tape to bind seams, and smoothed the appearance by spreading mixing compounds. Surfaces were usually sanded before paint was applied. All this work could liberate asbestos fibers into the air.
Asbestos was used as heat-resistant, fireproof insulation around electrical wiring, control boards, electrical panels, and switches. If fibers came off it, electricians probably breathed them in.
Many older buildings, homes, and industrial sites contain asbestos. If a fire breaks out, damage occurs, and asbestos-containing products which may be safely in one piece before the fire can break apart. Hot air and smoke around them move the fibers through the building and outside, where firefighters breathe them in. If the structure collapses, it could release a cloud of unseen asbestos fibers.
Asbestos was a common ingredient in floor tiles, vinyl flooring, and adhesives before the 1980s. Flooring contractors worked with these products, often cutting them to fit an area. They might also remove older asbestos-containing flooring and adhesives, tearing them up and sanding the floor, sending asbestos fibers in the air.
Asbestos was used for decades as insulation in products containing electric heating elements. Hair dryers used through the 1980s contained asbestos. As they aged and through wear and tear, the insulation could deteriorate, liberating asbestos fibers.
The HVAC workers install, maintain, and repair systems in buildings to control temperatures inside buildings. Older systems, pipes, and ductwork may have had asbestos-containing insulation in various products. HVAC workers may have installed or removed them, resulting in airborne asbestos fibers. Their work on these systems could put them anywhere in a structure and require them to work around or cut through many asbestos-containing products.
These mechanics, chemical workers, trade laborers, and machinery operators may have worked with or around asbestos-containing products. These products may wear down or break over time. Workers may have removed older products and installed new ones, exposing themselves to fibers.
These were some of the most exposed workers. They mostly worked in industrial buildings, large office and apartment complexes, factories, power, and chemical plants. Insulation was applied to steam pipes and boiler walls and sprayed on structures as a fireproofing material. This insulation may have been critical to the functioning of many systems inside a structure, but it also caused the death of many of those working with it.
Janitors and custodians often perform maintenance and repair in commercial, industrial, and large residential buildings. They could be exposed to fraying asbestos insulation or remove old asbestos-containing floor tiles. The older the building, the greater the risk of asbestos exposure.
Machinists use machines and hand tools to cut or modify metal, plastic, or wood parts used to assemble a product. They may repair and assemble these machines, many of which can generate high heat. Tools used in the process may contain asbestos which may be ground down over time, liberating fibers into the air.
Veterans have very high mesothelioma rates. They may have served on Navy ships using asbestos steam pipe and boiler insulation, repaired Air Force planes using asbestos-containing wire insulation or worked on brakes of Army vehicles.
Asbestos was part of many paints as a filler because it was cheap and strong. These paints were often used on bridges and other large structures. Peeling or sanding off the old paint to put on a new coat could release these fibers in the air.
Plumbers and Pipefitters
Plumbers worked on residential, commercial, and industrial projects in the US. They were often near others working directly with asbestos products and got secondary asbestos fiber exposure. Plumbers may have removed old asbestos-containing valve stem packing and gaskets and installed new ones.
Power Plant Workers
Equipment in older power plants was covered in asbestos insulation. They were used to control the heat coming off boilers and high-pressure steam pipes. It would also be used around electrical equipment. Workers would be exposed to asbestos when insulation was applied, as it deteriorated and sent fibers in the air, when it was torn off during maintenance and repairs, and when new insulation was added.
Older ships were loaded with asbestos insulation because it covered boilers that burned fuel to create steam which went from place to place in asbestos-insulated pipes. Fire is also a significant concern for those on a ship, and asbestos was used as fireproofing. All this asbestos created health problems for those building ships and shipyard workers repairing them when asbestos was removed to perform work and then re-applied.
Steel Mill Workers
To melt steel, a furnace in a steel mill would need to get up to about 2700 degrees. Equipment that hot must be insulated to function. For decades that insulation contained asbestos. As with other uses, this insulation was applied, fell apart over time, and was replaced. During all these phases, workers may breathe in asbestos fibers in the air.
Subway tunnels and stations contained asbestos for decades. High-pressure steam pipes and electrical equipment were insulated with it. Asbestos-containing fireproofing was sprayed on the structure. Those repairing this equipment, as well as subway workers and passengers, breathed in asbestos fibers until these products were safely replaced.
Textile and Mill Workers
Before its use was heavily regulated, asbestos was used in specialty cloth. It also insulated machinery in textile mills that gave off high heat. Employees could be directly exposed when they worked on asbestos cloth or machinery or indirectly exposed because they worked in the same area.
Electric arc welding produces an electrical short or arc when a welding rod touches the area to be welded. They would melt or fuse, creating a metal seam. Welding rods contained asbestos because it improved performance. Welders would be exposed to asbestos again when they ground these welds to smooth them. The resulting dust could be full of asbestos. Welding uses high heat, and welders’ protective gear also used asbestos.
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