Occupational Risk of Asbestos Exposure

For most of the twentieth century, asbestos was used heavily in manufacturing fireproof products. New uses of the carcinogen were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989. However, old applications are still found in plenty of commercial products, buildings, homes, and vehicles built before this time. Consequently, workers in a variety of industries are still at risk of occupational asbestos exposure today.

Mesothelioma (a type of cancer that starts in the living of certain tissues) is the main long-term health risk linked to asbestos exposure. About 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

U.S. military veterans make up about 30% of mesothelioma cases each year.

Rates of asbestos-related diseases have fallen slightly since their peak in the 1970s. Yet, rates for new cases have largely leveled off. Accordingly, occupational exposure to asbestos remains an issue in workplaces today.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulate most professional involvement with asbestos-containing materials.

How Are Workers Exposed to Asbestos?

Most occupational asbestos exposure happens when a worker inhales or swallows the toxic particles. Microscopic dust can travel deep into the body’s airways or digestive system. Then, instead of being coughed up or digested, asbestos fibers embed themselves in cells and begin to cause damage.

Over several years or even decades, some people may begin to experience side effects of asbestos exposure. Symptoms of mesothelioma can be mistaken for other diseases. Early misdiagnosis of the illness is not uncommon. General symptoms of occupational asbestos cancers include:

  • Blood clots
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss

Family members of workers exposed to asbestos may also be at risk for mesothelioma and other related illnesses. Usually, secondary exposure occurs when someone carries fibers home on their skin, hair, clothes, or shoes. At home, they can contaminate carpets and other surfaces. They can also spread toxic dust through the air to their loved ones.

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Occupations at Risk

The following jobs are at risk of asbestos exposure and subsequent related diseases.

Automotive Mechanics First Responders Real Estate
Chlorine Industry HVAC Shipyards
Construction Workers Mining Steelworkers
Electricians Plumbers and Pipefitters Teachers
Firefighters PPE Tire and Rubber Workers
U.S. Military Army Marine Corps
Air Force Coast Guard Navy

Automotive Mechanics

Automotive mechanics and others who work near vehicle repair areas may be at risk of asbestos exposure. For decades, certain engine parts made to endure friction were manufactured with asbestos for heat-resistance. Many brake linings and clutch facings, for instance, contained enough asbestos to put mechanics and maintenance technicians at risk of asbestos-related diseases.

Construction Workers

Hazardous exposure is one of the primary concerns for people working in the construction industry. Construction workers and related trades like carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work are all at risk for asbestos exposure. Demolition and repair on contaminated buildings and cement structures could release toxic dust into the air.

Working around the following asbestos-containing materials could increase the risk of occupational cancers among those in construction.

  • Adhesives
  • Boilers
  • Cement
  • Electrical wiring
  • Floor tiles
  • Insulation
  • Linoleum
  • Paints
  • Plumbing
  • Plaster
  • Roofing

Electricians

Unfortunately, electricians are at risk of occupational asbestos exposure at both electrical power stations and while working on construction sites. The carcinogen was added to several electrical components for fireproofing, including:

  • Cable and wiring insulation
  • Cement sheet
  • Fuse boxes and boards
  • Insulation board
  • Main electrical meter
  • Millboard
  • Resin board

Firefighters

Firefighters put themselves at risk of carcinogenic exposure daily. Long-term respiratory conditions (such as occupational asthma) are common among current and retired firefighters.

In 2013, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that firefighters had a significantly higher risk for asbestos-related cancers like mesothelioma. For firefighters, the risk is almost double that of the general population.

First Responders

First responders include paramedics, EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and search and rescue personnel. These emergency professionals are sometimes called to work in or near areas with heavy asbestos contamination. Moreover, they may not always wear protection over their nose and mouth. For instance, thousands of first responders developed health problems caused by airborne exposure from the falling of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Mining

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in several types of mined deposits worldwide. Miners are also at high risk for several occupational illnesses due to hazardous working conditions. In Canada, for example, some mines have 10 to 100 times the legal concentration of airborne asbestos. Moreover, 19% of miners’ family members suffered respiratory damage as well.

Real Estate

Due to the many uses of asbestos in homes before the 1980s, real estate agents are also at risk of occupational exposure. Additionally, agents may renovate certain areas of a home, increasing their risk. Even walking through or working near home construction areas can expose real estate workers to airborne asbestos from:

  • Boilers and pipes
  • Drywall
  • Insulation
  • Paints
  • Textured ceilings
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Shipyards

Shipyards have many occupational hazards for employees as well as those working nearby. Shipbuilding, cleaning, maintenance, and blasting operations involve a variety of chemicals and airborne exposure risks. Several studies have concluded that asbestos is the main source of cancer risk among shipyard workers.

Teachers

Asbestos was used to build many schools and public facilities in the U.S. before the 1980s. Before the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, teachers (especially those who taught for 20 or more years in contaminated schools) had a higher risk of asbestos exposure than other careers.

In schools that haven’t been renovated, teachers may still be at risk.

U.S. Military

Veterans of the U.S. military account for approximately a third of mesothelioma diagnoses every year. High rates of asbestos-related diseases stem from the military’s heavy use of asbestos-containing materials until the 1990s.

Navy and Coast Guard servicemembers have notably higher risks for mesothelioma due to ships’ poor ventilation. People who served in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps are also at risk from asbestos in:

  • Aerospace and aviation components
  • Automobile parts
  • Buildings undergoing renovation
  • Pipes and boilers

Legal Compensation

Those who suffered occupational asbestos exposure and were later diagnosed with mesothelioma can seek legal compensation for their illness. Speak with a lawyer about filing a legal claim such as a(n):

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