Asbestos in the Workplace
While there are a growing number of documented cases of asbestos-related diseases that involve individuals who did not work directly with asbestos or asbestos-containing products, the majority of those who contract such diseases are exposed while on the job.
Exposure to asbestos in the workplace actually goes back centuries, when slaves were made to mine asbestos for various uses such as Egyptian mummification clothes and textiles like tablecloths and napkins, used during the time of the Roman Empire.
Modern-day exposure in the workplace, however, began during the Industrial Revolution and continued through the asbestos warnings and regulations of the 1970s. For decades, workers toiled - virtually unprotected from danger - amidst the airborne fibers of a product that might possibly sicken and eventually kill them.
No degree of exposure to asbestos is safe and, unfortunately, throughout the years since asbestos was first introduced in the workplace, employers took little or no precautions to protect employees from inhaling dangerous fibers.
Their nonchalance wasn't caused by a lack of knowledge about the dangers of asbestos. As a matter of fact, physicians in the late 1800s were already attributing a rise in pulmonary diseases to asbestos exposure. In 1906, the first asbestos-related death was recorded, and by 1928, doctors and research scientists devised the name "asbestosis" for any lung diseases that appeared to be caused by asbestos inhalation.
Obviously, employers were aware of the dangers of working closely with the mineral and had only to provide protective gear in order to spare many lives. But few did. Instead, business owners and managers had "private meetings" about suspicious employee deaths and circulated internal memos that stressed caution when speaking about these delicate situations. They altered memos from insurance companies meant to warn employees about the risks they faced on the job. They also changed the results of studies which they were ordered to conduct in regards to the dangers of asbestos, attempting to ensure employees that they were safe.
In all, the problems with asbestos and asbestos exposure were virtually ignored until the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued warnings and, subsequently, some bans on the use of asbestos. But it was too late for those who had already been exposed and those who would soon be stricken with asbestos-related diseases.
Who Was at Risk in the Workplace?
A number of occupations carry high risks for asbestos exposure. Not everyone who worked in these fields will develop asbestos-related diseases, but the highest numbers are among employees in worked in the following areas:
Shipyards - Those who toiled in the nation's shipyards are among the most affected by asbestos-related diseases. The highest incidence has been seen among men who worked in the shipyards during World War II, when more than 4 million Americans - civilian and military - were employed at yards around the country. Occupations particularly affected include insulators, steamfitters, pipefitters, boilermen, plumbers, and electricians. Those who repaired damaged war ships often encountered high amounts of friable asbestos which was usually removed by hand with no protection. Those men suffer an especially high risk factor.
Railroads - Trains made use of asbestos for many years, from steam locomotives to the diesel variety. The material was used to line boilers, fireboxes, and steam pipes as well as in rope, cement, gaskets, and tiles for passenger cars. In addition, asbestos was considered the perfect fire-resistant material for railroad brakes and clutches.
Automotive Repair - The auto industry used asbestos in brake and clutch linings. Unfortunately, mechanics encountering old brakes or those imported from other countries that still use asbestos may be inhaling asbestos fibers when they work on a car containing those parts.
Contractors/Construction Workers - The construction industry was one of the largest users of asbestos-containing products. From insulation to drywall tape, from stucco to wallboard - construction workers faced asbestos no matter where they turned, both in home and commercial building projects.
Power Plants - Because of the heat generated at power plants, asbestos was once widely used for insulation of items such as boilers, turbines, and generators.
Oil Refineries - As in power plants, many pieces of equipment at oil refineries were insulated with asbestos, due to its heat- and fire-resistant properties.
Steel Mills - Thermal insulation products fashioned from asbestos were commonly found in steel mills around the country.
Asbestos product manufacturers - Factories that produced building materials and other items that contained asbestos put their workers at constant risk of exposure.
Mines - Those who toiled in talc or vermiculite mines probably inhaled asbestos fibers on a daily basis.
Firefighters - Firefighters who respond to fires and other emergencies at old buildings which contain asbestos may potentially inhale the fibers if not adequately protected.
Last modified: December 28, 2010.