Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Each year, millions of people are exposed to asbestos at work. Occupational asbestos exposure is the leading cause of mesothelioma.

Key Points

  • 1

    An estimated 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on the job annually.

  • 2

    More than half of mesothelioma cases can be attributed to occupational exposure.

  • 3

    There are asbestos regulations in place to help protect workers.

  • 4

    Workers exposed to asbestos have legal rights and may be eligible for compensation.

Asbestos was utilized heavily across numerous industries for many years, with over 3,000 products containing the mineral at one point. Because of its heavy past use, workers today are still at risk of exposure, with the World Health Organization estimating over 125 million people globally are exposed to the toxin on the job.

Mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning many workers may not realize they were exposed until even decades later. The implications of workplace exposure are still seen today, despite stricter asbestos regulations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s latest reports, from 2005 to 2014 there were a recorded 40,097 malignant mesothelioma deaths, of which 27,284 were work related.

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High Risk Occupations

While even the average office worker can potentially face asbestos exposure if they work in an older building, there are many occupations that face an especially high risk of coming into contact with the toxin. The most recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) work-related injury report highlighted some of the most impacted industries from mesothelioma from 1999 to 2012.

High Risk Occupations
Construction Workers
  • Asbestos was heavily used in building materials, from insulation to roofing materials
  • At least 1 million construction workers are likely exposed to asbestos each year
  • The most recent data shows the construction industry is most heavily impacted by mesothelioma
  • Construction workers accounted for 14.74% of all occupational mesothelioma deaths from 1999 to 2012
Manufacturing and Industrial Workers
  • In manufacturing, power plants or other industrial plants, asbestos materials were often used in machinery like boilers and generators, as well as in the products made
  • Those in manufacturing accounted for 4.72% of occupational mesothelioma deaths from 1999 to 2012
  • Industrial and chemical workers accounted for 2.72% of mesothelioma deaths for the same time period, with 141 deaths
Automotive Manufacturers and Mechanics
  • Asbestos has been used in many automotive parts including brake pads, brake linings and clutch linings
  • Automotive parts are among a handful of asbestos products that are still allowed to contain a small percentage of the mineral today
  • Mechanics replacing these parts, as well as manufacturers, make up at least 3.33% of recorded mesothelioma deaths in the report
Shipyard Workers
  • Ships, including Navy vessels, were well known for containing a lot of asbestos, especially in engine rooms and throughout the pipes
  • An estimated 4 million people worked in shipyards throughout World War II and are considered among the most at risk
  • Similarly, veterans make up about 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses, with Navy veterans considered to have the highest risk

In addition to these industries that present the highest risk of asbestos exposure, workers in numerous other industries are also at risk. Asbestos was heavily used for decades and is still legal in the United States, continuing to put millions of workers and their families in harm’s way. Notably, the NIOSH work-related illness report showed that those who work from home or non-workers who stay home are the second most at risk group after construction workers, accounting for over 7% of mesothelioma deaths.

Other At Risk Occupations
  • Firefighters
  • Teachers and school faculty
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Engineers
  • HVAC workers
  • Hairdressers
  • Building inspectors
  • Carpenters
  • Factory workers
  • Oil refinery workers
  • Railroad workers

What to Do If You’re Exposed to Asbestos at Work

Workers who have been exposed to asbestos at work and later develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, like lung cancer, have legal rights. Workers and their families may be eligible to file a mesothelioma claim and receive compensation to help cover lost wages and pay for expensive medical bills.

It’s important for workers and their loved ones to take action against the negligence of their employer or the asbestos companies that knowingly put them in harm’s way. While workers’ compensation may seem like a clear legal option for workers exposed to asbestos or hurt on the job, it’s important to talk to an experienced mesothelioma lawyer who can explain all the claim options available. Most states have a maximum workers’ compensation amount allowed per claim, and depending on the circumstances of exposure, workers may be able to file a claim against an asbestos trust fund or asbestos company for the compensation they deserve.

Additionally, for workers who believe they may have been exposed to the toxin at a worksite or are concerned about the potential for exposure, it’s important to discuss their working conditions with a supervisor and note any possible dangers. In most cases, worksites should be tested for asbestos and asbestos dust by certified asbestos abatement professionals prior to any project beginning. By law, employers have to ensure workers are properly trained and have the appropriate safety equipment if asbestos is present to prevent exposure and its potential health effects. Workers who believe their employer neglected to abide by such regulations should contact their local branch of OSHA and file a report.

Asbestos Regulations

There are several organizations that oversee and enforce asbestos regulations to help protect workers from exposure: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Since even one-time asbestos exposure or exposure to a small amount of asbestos is considered unsafe, it’s important for employers to abide by these regulations and ensure any workers who may be working near or with asbestos stay safe.

OSHA Asbestos Protections

OSHA was one of the first federal agencies to develop worker protections against asbestos. Under its rulings, there are strict standards for how asbestos can be handled in the workplace to better protect workers from exposure. The rules are broken down to specific industries including construction workers, shipyard workers and general industry.

OSHA Protections
  • Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL): Employers must ensure their workers aren’t exposed to a concentration of asbestos fibers above a certain amount.
  • Training: All workers exposed to asbestos at or above the standard PEL need to train before work can begin, and repeat training each year. Any workers in buildings presumed to have asbestos-containing materials will also require training.
  • Monitoring: Worksites need to be regularly monitored if there’s a risk of workers being exposed to asbestos at or above the PEL. Workers must also be medically examined regularly during their employment if exposed to levels at or above the PEL. Records for each site of the PEL and medical surveillance are required for at least 30 years.
  • Proper Hazard Warning: All asbestos worksites must be demarcated properly with clear signs explaining that asbestos is present and the threat it represents. Workers shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke around these areas and should take the appropriate measures if they will be entering the zone containing asbestos.

EPA’s Asbestos Worker Protection Rule

Unfortunately, some states may not have an OSHA-approved health and safety plan for workers who may be exposed to asbestos. As a result, the EPA developed this rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to extend the OSHA regulations to state and local who perform asbestos work and aren’t covered by the OSHA standards.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)

Miners also have specific regulations that can help protect them on the job. Much like OSHA, these standards were set to protect miners from exposure to asbestos and other dangerous substances. Like the businesses that would be held to the OSHA standards, mining organizations must monitor the asbestos levels, limit miners’ exposure to asbestos, and provide protective respiratory devices to those facing asbestos and other health hazards.

Supplemental Resources