Countless materials containing asbestos put thousands of workers at risk of asbestos exposure, which can cause mesothelioma and other serious illnesses. If you think you handled or inhaled asbestos while at work, and especially if you’ve experienced symptoms that may indicate an asbestos-related disease, it’s vital to know which industries, worksites, and materials could have exposed you to this dangerous mineral — and what you can do about it.
Asbestos Exposure in High-Risk Occupations
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral. For centuries, the durability of asbestos made it ideal for building materials. Asbestos fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and corrosion.
These properties made asbestos the first choice for many construction materials, including:
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Roof tiles
- Vinyl flooring
Thousands of products contained asbestos, particularly materials used in construction, auto manufacturing, insulation, and chemical and power plants. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the dangers of asbestos became too great to ignore. Government agencies began implementing regulations to decrease the use and production of asbestos products, and to provide protection for workers exposed to asbestos-containing materials.
But people who worked with asbestos and asbestos-laden products before the 1980s are still at a high risk for asbestos-related illnesses — and those who currently work with older materials could also be at risk for asbestos exposure, which could impact their health in the future.
Why Asbestos Poses Grave Health Risks
Handling products made with asbestos is dangerous because when these products are damaged, broken, drilled into, or cut open, the asbestos fibers within them are disrupted and can become airborne. Workers can unknowingly inhale these microscopic fibers, which will then travel into the lungs and become lodged in the tissue there.
Because of the chemical makeup and durability of asbestos, the human body is unable to process or rid itself of asbestos fibers. They remain in the tissue, often causing inflammation and the build-up of scar tissue in and around the lungs. Over time, this inflammation and scarring can lead to a variety of serious, even deadly diseases.
As a result, people who have worked closely with asbestos or products containing it have a higher risk of developing diseases like mesothelioma, a fatal form of lung cancer that has only one known cause: asbestos exposure.
High-Risk Asbestos Industries and Jobs
While thousands of different products have contained asbestos, there are some occupations and industries that required close and frequent exposure to large concentrations of asbestos fibers.
While no level of exposure is safe, people whose jobs required more frequent exposure to higher concentrations of asbestos are more likely to develop an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma.
Due to its heat resistance and durability, asbestos played an important role in the manufacturing of car parts exposed to extreme heat and wear. Parts containing asbestos included:
- Brake pads and linings
- Heat seals
- Valve rings
Especially in parts like brake pads and clutches, the asbestos materials underwent constant grinding and friction, creating fine dust that settled inside brake housing and parts. When mechanics opened up these parts to work on them, the dust became airborne and could be inhaled by the worker.
While many car parts no longer contain asbestos, and many manufacturers no longer use it, some older vehicles and imported vehicles are the exception.
Thousands of materials used in building and construction once contained high levels of asbestos, and some products — such as flooring and roofing tiles — still do. Cement, drywall, insulation, roofing materials, caulks, ceiling and floor tiles, and paint, among other materials, usually contained asbestos.
As a result, construction, renovation, and demolition workers are more likely to be exposed to asbestos than most other occupations. Those working in renovation and demolition often cut into, tear down, or otherwise disrupt materials containing asbestos, launching the microscopic fibers into the air, where they can then be inhaled.
While most newer materials no longer contain asbestos, some still do, as asbestos use is still legal in the United States. And because older buildings are more likely to be renovated or demolished, workers in these industries still face significant risks of exposure.
Firefighters and First Responders
When buildings and structures catch fire, asbestos-containing materials can become damaged, allowing the asbestos fibers to become airborne. Firefighters and first responders often work in the thick of these dangerous scenarios, in air that is potentially concentrated with asbestos.
The debris and soot that settles onto their gear can also contain asbestos fibers, which, if not properly decontaminated, can be inhaled later, even by the firefighter’s family at home.
Furthermore, because of asbestos’s resistance to heat and fire, firefighter gear (clothing, boots, and helmets) used to contain asbestos.
Many firefighters and first responders were exposed to asbestos in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as were those who worked and lived near Ground Zero. According to the American Journal of Public Health, as many as 2,000 tons of asbestos were used in the construction of the Twin Towers.
To prevent fires caused by overheating, power plants use many heat-resistant and fireproof materials. Asbestos-containing materials such as pipe insulation and fireproofing sprays are common in power plants.
Many power plant workers handle these products on a daily basis, but the nature of a power plant’s friction-producing machinery means that asbestos fibers are often released into the air where all workers, regardless of their role, are at risk of inhaling or ingesting them.
Asbestos is fire-resistant, water-resistant, and resistant to corrosion, so shipbuilders viewed it almost as a miracle material, able to prevent fires that would otherwise be catastrophic for a ship at sea.
As a result, manufacturers added asbestos to nearly every sort of shipbuilding material:
- Boiler rooms
- Engine rooms
- Paint (used on ship exteriors)
- Pipe coverings
Because asbestos was used for so many different parts of the ship, many shipyard workers across myriad jobs and roles were exposed to it. Even the delivery and unloading of ship materials posed a threat, as any disturbance to the asbestos-containing materials could lead to fibers becoming airborne and ingestible.
That said, those who worked in the boiler and engine rooms — and those focused on the construction, repair, or demolition of boats and ships — often faced the greatest levels of exposure.
Military Asbestos Exposure
Unfortunately, military veterans — particularly those who served in the U.S. Navy — face higher risks of asbestos exposure than the average American. Many veterans had roles that involved shipyard work, milling, mining, insulation installment, construction, manufacturing, or demolition, exposing them to asbestos-laden materials.
Furthermore, some veterans saw action in countries where old buildings were damaged or destroyed, potentially exposing them to air contaminated with asbestos fibers.
Asbestos Exposure in the Navy
The U.S. Navy relied heavily on the fireproofing attributes of asbestos. As discussed above, the shipbuilding industry incorporated asbestos into nearly every part of a ship, from the paint to the insulation, doors, floors, engine room, boiler room, gaskets, cables, valves, motors, and compressors. Asbestos could be found in virtually every room of a ship, including the mess halls and sleeping quarters.
For U.S. Navy personnel, asbestos was ubiquitous in daily life, regardless of their specific duties. Even when not at sea, a navy yard — with all of its construction, demolition, and repair work — could be a constant source of asbestos-contaminated air.
Workplace Asbestos Exposure Still a Threat
Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now have regulations in place to reduce the amount of asbestos present in many products, and to protect employees who handle asbestos-laden materials, occupational risks remain.
People who work in construction or who frequently handle, renovate, or remove older building materials — such as HVAC workers, plumbers, and electricians — risk exposure to asbestos. It’s vital that employees in these fields undergo training on how to safely handle materials containing asbestos, and that those involved in asbestos remediation take the necessary steps to ensure minimal to no contamination.
Employers whose workers risk asbestos exposure should follow OSHA and EPA guidelines to protect their employees and ensure a safe work environment.
While there are federal regulations that limit the concentration of asbestos allowed in some materials, there is still no outright ban on the manufacture, use, or import of asbestos. The risks may be diminished, but tragically, they are still present for present and future generations of workers.
Compensation for Occupational Asbestos Exposure
If you or a loved one was exposed to asbestos at work, and you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, you could be entitled to compensation. Over the past 40 years, we’ve helped people from all walks of life recover over $4.8 billion to pay for medical bills, lost wages, and other damages.
To find out if you qualify for compensation, contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. “Asbestos – Health Effects.” Accessed on September 28, 2021. https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/asbestos/effects.html
Klitzman, Susan and Nicholas Freudenberg. “Implications of the World Trade Center Attack for the Public Health and Health Care Infrastructures.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2003. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447752/#r8
Military.com. “Asbestos Illness Related to Military Service.” Accessed on September 28, 2021. https://www.military.com/benefits/veteran-benefits/asbestos-and-the-military-history-exposure-assistance.html
National Cancer Institute. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” Accessed on September 28, 2021. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “OSHA Fact Sheet: Asbestos.” Accessed on September 28, 2021. https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/OSHA3507.pdf
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Occupational Exposure to Asbestos.” Accessed on September 28, 2021. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/federalregister/1994-08-10