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Health & Wellness // May 8, 2017 MAAC Staff

National Occupational Health and Safety Week: Preventing Asbestos Exposure

When considering a job offer, many of us will contemplate the benefits like the health insurance, maternity leave policy, and the vacation time allotted. But a recent study showed 85% of workers have a much bigger concern in mind: safety.

Health and safety in the workplace is a huge issue around the world. Millions of people become sick or injured through their occupation each year. North American Occupational Safety & Health (NAOSH) Week, which is the first full week of May each year, was first established in 1997 to highlight the importance of better safety and preventive measures at work.

One hazard so many face at work is asbestos. Whether employed in a higher-risk occupation like construction or just working in a home office, millions of people face the potential for exposure to asbestos.

It’s estimated 125 million people are exposed to asbestos through work each year globally. Asbestos can cause a number of diseases, like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. It is the number one cause of occupational cancer in the United States.

In observance of NAOSH Week, we’re highlighting some of the dangers of asbestos in the workplace to help educate and raise awareness for better prevention.

High Risk Occupations

Many people diagnosed with mesothelioma were initially exposed to asbestos on the job. Certain occupations are more at risk for coming in contact with the toxin. Construction workers, shipyard workers, auto mechanics, and firefighters are just a few examples of occupations most often exposed to asbestos.

Asbestos isn’t technically a danger until it’s somehow damaged. Its fibers release into the air and can easily be inhaled. Once inhaled, the durable fibers become lodged in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, or heart and can’t be broken down. Over time, irritation and scarring from the fibers can develop into tumors.

Workers in these fields, unfortunately, often disturb asbestos-containing materials as part of their job duties. Auto mechanics, for example, change brakes and replace clutches often. The process requires filing down, sanding and even drilling the brake pads that may contain asbestos, which in turn creates a dangerous, inhalable asbestos dust.

Construction workers are considered to have the most dangerous land-based occupation. Though many workplace incidents for them involve falls or accidents with heavy materials or equipment, it’s estimated at least 17% of these accidents stem from exposure to toxins on the job. An estimated 1.3 million construction workers come into contact with asbestos-containing materials every year.

Asbestos was used throughout the military as well, making veterans extremely vulnerable for exposure. The toxin was used in various buildings at the bases, in shipyards, on aircrafts, and on navy vessels. Because of its wide use, about one-third of all mesothelioma diagnoses occur among veterans.

Secondhand exposure is also a big concern for the families of workers in these occupations. The asbestos fibers can easily settle onto clothing or any equipment used on the job and potentially expose others later.

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Asbestos in the (Home) Office

Whether you work in an office building or from an office at home, you can still potentially face exposure to asbestos. Older buildings and homes built before 1980 likely contain asbestos materials somewhere, since it was so widely used in a variety of products.

Up until asbestos was more regulated in the late 1970s, it was a go-to material for its durability and fire resistance. Asbestos containing materials were used heavily in construction in roofing, insulation, flooring, and more. Asbestos is still not banned in the United States, and can still be found in small amounts in certain products.

In most cases, its presence isn’t an issue unless a building or homeowner has plans for construction or renovation, which could potentially disturb the asbestos. In these instances, it’s a good idea to have a qualified asbestos inspector determine where asbestos is present and its extent. They can advise on any next steps that may be needed.

If removal isn’t necessary at the time, owners should keep an eye on any areas that do have asbestos-containing materials. Being aware of signs of aging or unexpected damage over time can allow for quick action to repair or remove the toxin and prevent exposure.

Workers in an office building or home office should also consider the general air quality indoors. Often, the indoor air is more polluted than the air outside because of poor ventilation or toxins used in its construction, such as asbestos. There are simple ways to improve indoor air quality and avoid exposure to various pollutants that can cause a wide array of health problems.

Staying Safe at Work

People face many threats at work, whether they’re obvious or the more invisible like asbestos. Workers should understand their legal rights when injured or ill because of work. For those diagnosed with mesothelioma, there are options for assistance with the high medical expenses associated with the disease.

With better safety measures in place, asbestos exposure can be prevented. During NAOSH Week, educate yourself and others on its dangers. Until asbestos is banned, we all need to be more vigilant and proactive for our health.