Steelworkers and Asbestos Exposure

Health hazards for workers in the steel industry include physical and chemical dangers. Technology has revolutionized processing iron ore into steel and most mills are smaller. Subsequently, the number of people required to run a steel mill has fallen. Yet, steelworkers still face higher rates of asbestos exposure and other health risks in the workplace.

Occupational exposure to carcinogens happens through a variety of tasks in steelmaking. Asbestos exposure is one of the chemical hazards present in steel mills. Carbon monoxide, lead, and benzene are other types of occupational exposure hazards in the steel industry.

Typically, people inhale toxic particles through their nose or mouth. At times, they may swallow them by eating contaminated food or touching their mouth without washing their hands first. Years of working in a steel mill or steel manufacturing plant can result in occupational diseases like emphysema, mesothelioma, lung cancer, leukemia, and other chronic health problems.

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Risk Factors for Steelworkers

Each step of the steelmaking process comes with distinct hazards. Usually, a worker specializes in one area and continues working there for years. Consequently, steelworkers in certain parts of a steel production facility have risk factors for occupational cancer.

Area of Steel Mill Health Risks
Iron ore preparation Iron ore dust, lead dust, silica dust
Coke ovens Ammonia, asbestos, benzene, carbon monoxide, coal dust, coke dust, coke oven emissions, naphthalene
Blast furnaces Asbestos, ACM’s, carbon monoxide, silica, sulfur dioxide,
Steelmaking Asbestos, iron oxide dust, lime dust, silica dust,
Finishing Acid mists and vapor, batch anneal, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, sulphuric acid

Additionally, some occupations that work with steel outside of steel mills experience similar cancer risks. The following jobs share risk factors for occupational cancer with people in the steel industry:

  • Blacksmiths
  • Factory workers
  • Ironworkers
  • Smelters
  • Welders

Diagnosing Work-related Health Problems

After working in a steel mill, some people begin to experience symptoms such as a persistent cough or chest pain. These could be side effects of an allergic reaction to workplace dust or signs of a larger health problem. Visit a doctor to discuss any symptoms lasting eight weeks or more.

Tell your doctor about your work history and any possible toxic exposure. Tests like a physical examination, blood test, lung function test, and biopsy may be needed to diagnose the problem.

There are no immediate symptoms of asbestos exposure. Consequently, most people don’t know they have become ill until the cancer spreads. Mesothelioma is the primary type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Other health hazards steelworkers are at risk for include:

  • Colon cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Compensation for Current and Retired Steelworkers

Previously, companies like United States Steel Corp. and Bethlehem Steel have come under scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to protect workers. As recently as 2016, U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania was fined $170,000 for exposing workers to asbestos.

Steelworkers who become ill or injured during their employment can usually rely on workers’ compensation. Retired steelworkers with an asbestos-caused illness may qualify for benefits from:

  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Medicare
  • Social Security Administration

Additionally, steelworkers and their family members may file a legal claim for compensation. Asbestos trust funds and personal injury lawsuits are types of legal claims available to people diagnosed with an asbestos-linked disease.


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