Asbestos in the Workplace
Exposure to asbestos in the workplace goes back centuries. 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 began during the Industrial Revolution and continued through the asbestos warnings and regulations of the 1970s.
People working with asbestos usually did so without taking any safety precautions. However, many companies and manufacturers of asbestos products were well aware of the dangers of working with the substance. 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.
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 of the dangers of asbestos which they were ordered to conduct.
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. For many, however, it was already too late.
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:
Shipyard workers 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:
Those who repaired damaged warships often encountered high amounts of friable asbestos which was usually removed by hand with no protection. Those men suffer an especially high risk factor.
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.
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.
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 in home and commercial building projects.
Because of the heat generated at power plants, asbestos was once widely used for insulation of items such as boilers, turbines, and generators.
As in power plants, many pieces of equipment at oil refineries were insulated with asbestos, due to its heat- and fire-resistant properties.
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.
People working in talc or vermiculite mines probably inhaled asbestos fibers on a daily basis.
Firefighters who respond to fires and other emergencies at old buildings which contain asbestos may potentially inhale the fibers if not adequately protected.