Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Many industries require working with or near asbestos fibers, which may cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Key Points

  • 1

    An estimated 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on the job annually.

  • 2

    According to the CDC, almost 70% of all mesothelioma cases are work-related.

  • 3

    There are asbestos regulations in place to help protect workers.

  • 4

    Construction workers, mechanics and shipyard workers are among those most at risk.

Because of the wide use of asbestos in the past, countless Americans are at risk of exposure. However, studies have shown that the most common cause of asbestos exposure still occurs in the workplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that around 70% of all mesothelioma cases occur as the result of workplace exposure. Workers, particularly those in higher-risk industries like construction, need to be aware of the dangers of asbestos, the health effects of exposure and the laws in place to help protect them on the job.

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Most At-Risk Occupations

Those currently working in the following fields may not experience adverse health effects from their asbestos exposure for decades, due to the long latency period typical of asbestos-related diseases. However, all those currently working, and those that have since retired from these industries, should discuss their elevated risk of asbestos exposure with a medical professional and ask those managing their workplaces about possible asbestos-containing products.

Construction Workers

Construction workers are often cited as the group with the greatest risk of asbestos exposure while on the job. According to the most recent data, there are around 1.3 million construction workers exposed to asbestos each year. In fact, throughout the 20th century, the industry comprised between 70 – 80% of all asbestos used within the country. The effects of this widespread use can be seen in CDC data, which shows that more than 14% of all mesothelioma deaths between 1999 and 2012 occurred among those who worked in the construction industry.

These workers experience exposure due to asbestos use as a common additive for building materials, including floor tiles, roofing material and vinyl siding, to increase the durability and flame retardation. When construction workers and other laborers disturb the materials in some way, such as sawing, they can create toxic asbestos dust.

According to one study, one in four building workers with heavy asbestos exposure will develop malignant mesothelioma in their lifetime. Comparatively, the researchers found that less than one in 500 people in the general population will develop the cancer.

Additionally, a retrospective study found that aging construction workers tended to have decreased lung function due to exposure to vapors, gases, fumes and dust, like asbestos, on the worksite. According to testing completed in 2003, 20% of the air samples collected from construction sites that year had asbestos levels above the legal limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Those who experienced exposure then may now be starting to show signs of asbestos diseases.

Other Construction Roles That May Involve Asbestos Exposure
  • Building Inspectors
  • Carpenters
  • Demolition crews
  • Electricians
  • Foremen
  • HVAC workers
  • Plumbers
  • Welders

Engineers

Engineers are often exposed to asbestos through their work alongside those in the construction industry. While not frequently working with asbestos materials themselves, they are often in supervisory roles on jobsites and may be exposed to airborne particles.

For example, one case study examined the asbestos exposure experienced by a research nuclear engineer who unknowingly was exposed when working with asbestos insulated reactors and later developed malignant mesothelioma. The exposure occurred when the engineer was present as other workers sawed into the reactors, creating asbestos dust.

This issue is further confirmed when considering more historical studies. For instance, a study analyzing lung film from more than 5,000 marine engineers found that 12% of these men had pleural abnormalities resulting from their asbestos exposure. Marine engineers in particular have been found to have an increased risk of pleural mesothelioma because of the heavy prevalence of asbestos aboard all ships and sea vessels.

Engineers That May Experience Asbestos Exposure
  • Civil engineers
  • Marine engineers
  • Mechanical engineers
  • Nuclear engineers

Firefighters

During a blaze, firefighters may be exposed to damaged asbestos-containing materials. This is especially common in areas with older buildings, which are the most likely to have been constructed with asbestos products. Additionally, in the past, the protective gear worn by firefighters contained asbestos fibers to aid in fire-resistance. While modern safety gear today no longer contains asbestos, if firefighters do not wear or maintain the equipment properly, exposure may still occur.

According to a CDC report from 2013, firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population. A retrospective study corroborates this claim. The researchers examined data regarding 30,000 firefighters from three large U.S. cities, all of whom were employed since 1950. The study followed the workers through 2009 and found they had a greater incidence of mesothelioma than the larger public. Among those firefighters with mesothelioma, 88% were diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma.

Firefighting Roles That May Be Exposed to Asbestos
  • Conservationists
  • EMTs/Paramedics
  • Fire inspectors
  • Fire investigators
  • Hazardous materials workers
  • Police/detectives

Hairdressers

Hairdressers may experience asbestos exposure when using hair dryers made prior to the 1970s. According to a 1979 release by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there were more than 100 models of hair dryers known to contain asbestos.

Consumer and industry hand-held hair dryers, as well as hooded varieties, have been shown to release asbestos into the air when in use. This is especially dangerous if the aging hair dryers are still used today, as wear-and-tear may increase the risk of airborne asbestos.

According to a recent study, asbestos exposure experienced solely from hair dryer exposure is enough to cause mesothelioma. One hairdresser detailed in the study developed peritoneal mesothelioma after facing exposure for at least eight hours a day, 4 – 5 days each week. Researchers noted the hair dryer was always within one to two feet of her face.

Hairdresser/Salon Roles That May Lead to Asbestos Exposure
  • Barbers
  • Cosmetologists
  • Estheticians
  • Hairstylists
  • Manicurists
  • Pedicurists

Manufacturing/Industrial Workers

Manufacturing and industrial workers may have been exposed to asbestos while working for American manufacturers in factories or in power plants. These employees may have experienced asbestos exposure when assembling or building products during the manufacturing process, maintaining machinery or from the structures in which they worked.

One study analyzing the incidence of asbestos-related diseases among 5,387 North Carolina asbestos textile workers found an increased incidence of mesothelioma and other pleural cancers. The researchers found that with greater duration of exposure and longer time since the first exposure, incidence of asbestos diseases increased.

Manufacturing companies known to have used asbestos include Duro Dyne Corporation, John Deere Industrial Equipment Company and Sherwin Williams Company, among others.

Manufacturing/Industrial Worker Roles That May be Exposed to Asbestos
  • General maintenance
  • Inspectors
  • Machinists
  • Production workers
  • Team assemblers
  • Welders

Mechanics

Asbestos was often used as a friction and heat reducer in many vehicles and other engine-powered items. The mechanics working on these engines, the larger vehicles or in the surrounding space may be exposed to airborne asbestos.

According to reports, during the manipulation of asbestos-containing brake pads, approximately 1% of free asbestos is released. Comparatively, when brake linings containing asbestos are worked with, around 50% of free asbestos fibers are released.

Data from the CDC shows that between 1999 – 2012, there were 62 deaths due to mesothelioma within the automotive repair and maintenance industry. This accounts for just over 1% of all mesothelioma deaths within that time frame.

While past exposure to asbestos-containing automotive parts cannot be undone, present-day mechanics are still at risk. Those working on older vehicles or with parts imported from other countries with fewer asbestos restrictions continue to be at an increased risk of exposure to the toxin.

Mechanics That May Experience Asbestos Exposure
  • Automotive body technicians
  • Automotive service technicians
  • Brake repairmen
  • Heavy vehicle technicians
  • Motorcycle mechanics
  • Small engine mechanics

Mechanics should ensure that the shops they work in are well ventilated and use proper precautions when working on older or foreign vehicles to mitigate asbestos risk.

Military Personnel

Veterans comprise about 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. All military personnel, both those currently serving and those who’ve since left the service, should be aware of the potential risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used within all branches of the military, especially during World War II. Those who served in the Merchant Marines or the U.S. Navy are at an elevated risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, as the fibers were commonly used aboard ships to prevent fire. Those in other branches of service may also be at risk due to asbestos used in the construction of bases across the country.

Military Personnel at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
  • Army soldiers
  • Marines
  • Merchant Mariners
  • U.S. Air Force airmen
  • U.S. Navy sailors
  • Reserve service members

For servicemen and women who experience asbestos exposure while serving, there are veteran-specific resources available.

Oil Refinery Workers

Asbestos has been widely used throughout the oil and fossil fuel process across the country and around the world. According to studies, the maintenance workers at these facilities have an elevated risk of pleural mesothelioma compared to their other co-workers. One study analyzing the cancer risk among oil refinery workers in Italy found that after 20 years of working in the oil refinery, workers had a 71% increased risk of developing pleural mesothelioma.

Oil Refinery Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
  • Engineers
  • Foremen
  • Journeymen
  • Petroleum technicians
  • Refinery operators
  • Site supervisor

Railroad Workers

The railroad industry employs roughly 165,000 Americans and almost 20% of their workforce are veterans. The industry is known to have used asbestos-containing materials in the construction of the railcars, which puts all employees at risk of asbestos exposure. As these asbestos-contaminated railcars, constructed through the 1970s, age and deteriorate, there is a greater risk of airborne asbestos fibers. This risk is compounded for employees who may also have experienced asbestos exposure during their military service.

Railroad Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
  • Brake, signal and switch operators
  • Conductors
  • Locomotive engineers
  • Rail yard engineers
  • Yardmasters

Shipyard Workers

Shipyard workers may experience exposure to airborne asbestos particles when constructing, repairing or deconstructing ships. Asbestos was used heavily in the shipbuilding industry and could be found in insulation, gaskets, valves or pipe coverings aboard ships. When these asbestos-containing materials are manipulated, often in the tight quarters of the ship or shipyard, employees may inhale the microscopic fibers.

One study examining cancer incidence among ship workers between 2001 – 2006 found six cases of cancer stemming from the engine room. Among those cases were two cases of lung cancer, believed to be caused by a combination of smoking and asbestos exposure. The two cases of mesothelioma among the engine room workers are believed to be solely caused by their work with asbestos in the engine room.

According to CDC data, between 1999 – 2012 there were 83 deaths due to mesothelioma among those in the ship and boat building industry.

Shipyard Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
  • Electrician
  • Joiners
  • Naval architects
  • Riggers
  • Shipfitters
  • Solderers
  • Structural fabricators
  • Welders

What to Do If You’re Exposed to Asbestos at Work

Workers who believe they may have been exposed to the toxin at a worksite, or are concerned about the potential for exposure, should discuss their working conditions with a supervisor and note any possible dangers. Concerned workers should consult a doctor and monitor for signs of asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma.

Additionally, those who’ve experienced asbestos exposure while on the job and later develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease have legal rights. Workers and their families may be eligible to file a mesothelioma claim and receive compensation to help cover lost wages and pay for expensive medical bills, while also holding the negligent companies responsible.

While workers’ compensation may seem like a clear legal option for workers exposed to asbestos on the job, it’s important to talk to an experienced mesothelioma lawyer who can explain all the claim options available and help decide the best option for an individual case.

Asbestos Regulations

There are numerous guidelines in place to prevent workplace exposure to asbestos, including OSHA regulations specific to the industries known to have the most prolific history of asbestos use.

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 protect workers from exposure. Included in their guidelines are asbestos exposure limits, yearly employee training on safe asbestos practices and clear signage detailing areas where asbestos is present.

In addition to the OSHA guidelines, there are several other organizations that oversee and enforce asbestos regulations including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other more occupation-specific groups, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Since even one-time asbestos exposure, or exposure to a small amount of asbestos, is considered unsafe, it’s important for employers to abide by these regulations to ensure all workers stay safe.