Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

Millions of workers are exposed to asbestos on the job each year. It is the number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States.

Key Points

  • 1

    Asbestos is the number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States.

  • 2

    It's estimated 125 million people globally are exposed to asbestos at work each year.

  • 3

    Certain occupational fields are more at risk of asbestos exposure than others.

  • 4

    Workers diagnosed with mesothelioma have options to help cover medical expenses.

For centuries, asbestos was viewed as a valuable material for many different industries, ranging from construction to the production of various consumer goods. The durability, heat resistance and cost-effectiveness of asbestos made it a “miracle” material. Unfortunately, millions of workers worldwide paid the price for heavy use of this toxin that causes deadly diseases like mesothelioma.

Being exposed to asbestos at work is more common than many realize, and still occurs today despite stricter regulations around its use. Asbestos remains the number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States. Around the world, it’s estimated that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos through work each year.

High Risk Occupations

While even the average office worker can potentially face exposure if they are in an older building, there are many occupations that face an especially high risk of coming into contact with the toxin.

Construction Workers

The construction industry has one of the highest uses of asbestos-containing materials. Construction materials from cement and caulk to insulation and roofing shingles all have the potential to contain some amount of asbestos.

Construction is considered one of the most dangerous jobs period because workers face a lot of risks. Though most accidents on the job occur from heavy machinery or dangerous falls, exposure is also a huge factor for these workers. It’s estimated that over 1 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos-containing materials each year.

According to most recent NIOSH work-related lung disease report, nearly 15% of all malignant mesothelioma deaths in 1999 were workers in the construction industry.

Asbestos and Construction Workers
Most At Risk Positions
  • Drywall installers
  • Insulators
  • Demolition crews
  • Pipefitters
  • Roofers and Tile setters
  • Masons
  • Flooring installers
  • Plasterers and Cement workers
Examples of Asbestos Products
  • Flintkote Tiles
  • Keasbey & Mattison Asbestos Shingle
  • National Gypsum Gold Bond Asbestos Siding and Panels
  • Ruberoid Roofing Asphalt
  • WR Grace & Company Zonolite Plaster
  • U.S. Gypsum Company Sheetrock Texture

Shipyard Workers

Shipyards can contain high quantities of asbestos, and as such shipyard workers are among the most diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. Those who worked in shipyards and on ships during World War II are especially at risk, as over 4 million people were employed at these yards at that time.

Shipyard workers have a variety of duties, including construction and maintenance of ships. Asbestos was very common on these ships because of its properties and could be found in almost any aspect of the ship, from the gaskets and seal compounds to the boilers.

Because of the high amount of asbestos used on these naval ships, Navy veterans are also at high risk. Asbestos was used widely throughout the military, however, so all veterans are vulnerable to being diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Asbestos and Shipyard Workers
Most At Risk Positions
  • Insulators
  • Steamfitters
  • Pipefitters
  • Boilermen
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
Examples of Asbestos Products
  • Johns Manville gaskets
  • Ruberoid Imperial Insulation
  • Keene Corporation Endure Pipe Covering Block & Cement
  • Keasbey & Mattison K&M Range Boiler Jacket
  • Atlas Turner Asbestos Lagging
  • Babcock & Wilcox Marine Boilers


Whether working as a mechanic performing maintenance on a vehicle or aircraft, asbestos exposure is a big risk. Because many of the inner workings of a car or aircraft cause high heat and friction, asbestos was widely used in various parts because of its heat resistance.Today, asbestos is mostly present in older parts, but can also be present in vehicle or aircraft parts imported from other countries.

Auto repair shops often have poor ventilation and circulation, which can make the asbestos dust more concentrated in the air. Many workers aren’t even aware of asbestos in the products they’re using, so often don’t take precautions to avoid exposure.

In addition to the dangers of replacing these parts, mechanics also risk exposure through improper cleanup. Wiping parts with a dry rag or wiping away any dust in this manner can create airborne asbestos. Spraying water or using compressed air to clean various parts can also spread the asbestos around the facilities.

Asbestos and Mechanics
Most At Risk Positions
  • Brake maintenance & replacement
  • Clutch repair & replacement
  • Grinding and preparing parts for installation
  • Changing aircraft electrical components
Examples of Asbestos Products
  • Chrysler Corporation brake & clutch linings
  • Ford Motor Company brake & clutch linings
  • General Motors Corporation disc and drum brakes
  • Johns Manville Corporation gaskets
  • Bendix disc brake pads
  • Raymark Automatic Transmission Plates

Plant Workers

Power plant, chemical plant and industrial plant workers all face varying degrees of asbestos exposure on the job. Power plant workers interact with and maintain boilers, generators and turbines which all operate with the risk of combustion or heat damage. As such, much of the equipment was made with asbestos to lessen the risk, though it ultimately put the employees at great risk of dangerous exposure.

Industrial plant workers have a variety of responsibilities, but largely tend to mass quantities of manufactured goods, often performing mechanical or chemical processes throughout production. The majority of their tasks involve maintaining and repairing heavy machinery, many of which were made with various asbestos-containing materials.

Chemical plant workers also perform varied tasks, whether they’re working directly with the chemicals or operating and tending to the machines producing their goods. In addition to the equipment having many asbestos products, workers also would frequently wear protective clothing that contained asbestos. Because of its heat resistance, the fibers were used in many gloves, aprons, and coveralls the workers would wear.

Asbestos and Plant Workers
Most At Risk Positions
  • Millwrights
  • Machine operators
  • Distributors
  • Welders
  • Chemical technicians
  • Smelters
Examples of Asbestos Products
  • NARCO Anti-Erode
  • Raymark Cable Filler
  • Celotex Corporation Defendex Pipe Covering
  • Westinghouse Electric Corporation turbines
  • Harbison-Walker/Dresser H-W Lightweight Castable
  • Johns Manville Marinite Board


There are well over one million firefighters in the United States, both volunteers and those pursuing a career. Being a firefighter is a dangerous occupation for many reasons. Unfortunately, exposure to toxins like asbestos on the job is a serious risk.

Many older buildings built before 1980 contain some asbestos materials. Even though asbestos was used for its heat resistance, in the event of a fire most of these materials will begin to break down and release asbestos fibers into the air. Though in many cases, their protective gear will help prevent exposure, the fibers will continue to linger even after the fire is out. Protection is still vital even when the immediate danger of the flames has been extinguished.

The tragic events of 9/11 also created a lot of dangerous debris and airborne toxins, including asbestos. Reports estimate that around 410,000 people were exposed to these toxins during rescue and cleanup efforts. Since it can take 10 – 50 years for symptoms to show, those who helped during and after the attack should monitor their health and inform their doctor of potential exposure.

Asbestos and Firefighters
Most At Risk Positions
  • Volunteer firefighter
  • Probationary firefighter
  • Career firefighter
  • Fire chief
  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
Examples of Asbestos Products
  • Rock Wool Asbestos Blanket
  • Asbestos helmets
  • 3M Rubber Coated Asbestos Cloth
  • Amatex Asbestos Cloth
  • Asbestos gloves
  • Fire doors

In addition to these higher risk occupations, many other workers around the world may also come in contact with the toxin at work. Even people who stay at home have the potential to be exposed to asbestos if they live in an older house that may have become damaged or deteriorated a bit over time.

Other At Risk Occupations
  • Teachers and school faculty
  • Electricians
  • Engineers
  • Railroad Workers
  • HVAC Workers
  • Machinists
  • Plumbers
  • Blacksmiths
  • Sheet Metal Workers
  • Hairdressers

Families and friends of those in these occupations are also more vulnerable for secondhand exposure. Workers can easily unknowingly bring asbestos fibers home with them on their clothing, in their hair, or on any equipment used on the job.

Asbestos Regulations to Protect Workers

Since asbestos is not yet banned and so prevalent in the workplace, there are various laws in place to better protect workers from dangerous exposure. Any amount of exposure is considered unsafe, so it’s important for employers to abide by these laws for their workers’ safety.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Regulations

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.

OSHA has three basic standards to protect workers depending on their workplace:

  • Construction
  • Shipyards
  • General Industry

There are a number of different protections built into these standards, which also will depend on the particular industry.

OSHA Protections
  • Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL): Employers must ensure their workers aren’t exposed to concentration of asbestos above a certain amount.
  • Training: The amount and type of training required depends on the PEL workers are facing. Those facing a higher PEL will require more extensive 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. An asbestos professional should assess and classify each site. Depending on the worksite and amount of asbestos, workers must also be medically examined regularly during their employment if they’re exposed to levels at or above the PEL. Records for each site around 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 that anyone can understand, 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. So 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.

Workers’ Rights

Despite these protective regulations in place, many workers may still be exposed on the job. If diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, you have legal rights and may be eligible for compensation to recover lost wages and assist with medical expenses.

Workers’ Compensation for Mesothelioma Patients

For those exposed to asbestos on the job and later diagnosed with mesothelioma, worker’s compensation is one available option to help alleviate the financial burden of heavy medical bills.

Workers’ compensation is an insurance paid for by an employer to assist workers injured or ill because of work to help pay for medical bills and recuperate lost wages. It’s a state run system, so each state has their own specific policies, like statue of limitations. Each state has a set standard of the highest amount an individual can receive, which can be paid as a lump sum or in installments.

For federal employees exposed to asbestos on the job, there is a separate workers’ compensation program, The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, or OWCP.

Requirements for a Workers' Compensation Claim
  • Details of exposure: type of asbestos if possible, type of work being done, where & when/how often exposed
  • Type of precautions taken to avoid exposure (ie. using a respirator)
  • Medical evidence of diagnosis and treatment plans

Other Compensation Options

Workers compensation isn’t the only option for asbestos victims. For those who choose to file a workers’ compensation claim, it’s important to keep in mind this claim forfeits the right to pursue a lawsuit against an employer for being wrongfully exposed.

There are other types of claims mesothelioma patients may consider depending on their individual circumstances. Mesothelioma compensation can come from workers’ compensation, lawsuits, asbestos bankruptcy trust funds, or veterans benefits. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer will be able to determine the best option for your case and work to gather all the evidence necessary for the claim.

Get a free case evaluation today to learn more about your rights and what financial assistance you might be eligible for.

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