Most people were exposed to asbestos at work. People who are at greatest risk for occupational exposure worked in construction trades or other jobs which used asbestos products for insulation.
Most Common Occupations Causing Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos was considered a miracle product. Its properties for insulation made it a primary component of products used in high-heat occupations such as construction trades, the military and steel work. Because its value was so high, many companies continued to use asbestos even after the dangers were identified.
Why Is Occupational Exposure So Prevalent?
- Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance, easily mined from a number of deposits around the U.S. and other regions of the world. It was inexpensive and could be incorporated into a number of products from fabrics to cement.
- Fire Resistance
Asbestos was widely used as for its fire resistance in products that posed a risk of overheating or catching fire. Products containing asbestos such as fire blankets, wall insulation, tiles and even lubricants were used in construction, auto manufacturing and many other industries.
In addition to its fire resistant properties, asbestos is also a product that provides excellent insulation from heat. It was widely used in pipe fitting, construction, steel work and other industries and was used as asbestos “cement”, some of which is still in use.
The military was a large consumer of asbestos-containing products, particularly ship-building and other vehicular manufacturing. It was also used in construction of many buildings on hundreds of military installations. Many ships and military bases still pose a risk of occupational asbestos exposure.
Asbestos was used in trades such as pipefitting and steelwork for its properties as high-heat insulation. It was also used industries such as auto manufacturing and repair for its fire resistance properties in brakes and other components which were subject to friction.
Use Throughout the Military
Veterans of the military make up a large percentage of people who were subject to occupational asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in most shipbuilding, vehicle manufacturing and construction projects until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Military veterans who suffered occupational exposure are often eligible for compensation through the Veterans Administration (VA).
Use in Trade and Industry
Most construction and manufacturing which utilized asbestos as part of various products was discontinued 30 to 40 years ago but many of those products are still in use today. Even though regulations are now in place to protect workers, many are still at risk from the health effects of occupational exposure.
Until the 1980s asbestos was used in hundreds, if not thousands of products. Tradesmen that worked with products containing asbestos are still at risk from occupational exposure. Asbestos-related cancer such as mesothelioma takes 20 to 50 years to develop, consequently, many of those tradesmen remain at high risk. In addition, though most asbestos use has been discontinued, some products such as asbestos cement are still manufactured and previously manufactured products may still be in use.
Products that may contain asbestos
- Boilers and pipes
- Heating systems
- Brake pads and other automotive parts
- Electrical wire wrapping
- Wall board
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Fire blankets and fabric
- Chemical containers
- Machinery lubricants
- Adhesives and sealants
- Paper products
- Insulation pads
- Asbestos cement
Though most manufacturing of products containing asbestos has been banned in the U.S. and other developed countries such as Canada, some parts of the world still manufacture many asbestos products. Russia, South America and many Asian countries still use asbestos in manufacturing. Products imported from those regions and countries may contain asbestos and pose occupational exposure risk.
These products include:
- Automobile clutches
- Brake pads
- Vinyl tile
- Welding gloves
- Roofing materials
- Cement pipe
The Rise and Decline of Asbestos Use
Asbestos use in manufacturing began in the late 1800s and early 1900s but widespread use started in about 1920. Prior to that period, mining was the primary industry which presented occupational exposure. During the 1940s, many people began to be exposed to asbestos in industries such as shipbuilding, construction, steel work and manufacturing or other machine work.
World War II related exposure
During WWII, production of military vessels caused a dramatic upswing in asbestos use. Shipbuilders in the Navy were at even higher risk than other branches of the armed forces as ships used asbestos in virtually every area. Because of WWII, an increasing number of ships and sea-going vessels that were constructed.
Navy personnel working in any one of a number of shipyards was exposued to asbestos even if they were not directly involved in construction of the ship. Workers in related areas were subject to contamination through asbestos use and even administrative personnel may have been exposed to asbestos fibers and dust in the air.
Sailors, flight personnel and other military servicemen may have suffered occupational exposure due to the confined spaces, close proximity and limited airspace and air flow which was contaminated with asbestos dust.
These industrial workers may include:
- Iron workers
- Pipe fitters
- Insulation workers
Non-manufacturing personnel may include
- Combat personnel
- Administrative Workers
The Widespread Use of Asbestos in Construction
Those who worked in construction industries were at particularly high risk and may be one of thousands who develop occupational-related mesothelioma and other asbestos disease. Those most at risk include:
- Railroad workers
- Manufacturing personnel
- Ship builders
- Mine workers
- Power plant workers
- Steel and iron workers
- Servicemen, airmen and sailors
- Automotive workers
Federal regulations in the late 1970s and early 1980s were enacted to ban most asbestos use, but products used in those industries are still present in many transport vessels, old automobiles, buildings and other facilities.
In addition, regulations enacted did not ban asbestos use completely. It is still used in products such as asbestos cement and pipes as it is thought to be “low risk” in the manufacturing of those products. Little asbestos mining is done today and regulations have decreased the risk, but exposure is still possible.
WWII presented a dramatic rise and the late 1970s saw a rapid drop of occupational asbestos exposure victims. Despite this decrease, up to 30 million or more workers have likely been exposed since regulations began to be imposed.
Though a complete ban was the original intention of regulations, companies that profit from asbestos use lobbied for loosening of the laws. Consequently, some asbestos manufacturing has not been banned and certain products containing the substance may be imported from countries where the mineral is still in use. This means that people are still at risk for occupational asbestos exposure.
Mining of asbestos has declined but one mine remains open. In addition, some mine sites of minerals such as talc, may exist alongside asbestos or the site may be contaminated with the mineral. Most asbestos used today is imported with over 250,000 tons having been used the U.S. between 1997 and 2001, long after regulations came into effect.
Most of these products are handled by those in construction and manufacturing trades. Workers may be unaware of the risk and may not even know that products they are using contain asbestos.
Some buildings that contain asbestos were subject to demolition, exposing those workers to dust and fragments in the air. Most asbestos that is discovered in old buildings is subject to containment, rather than removal, consequently exposure is still a threat. People in the area of demolition may also be at risk and many workers, volunteers, rescue personnel and debris removal personnel were put at risk during 9/11.
Industrial and environmental regulations
Since the late 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency began enacting bans of asbestos mining and manufacturing. Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for ensuring that workers are not exposed to asbestos.
OSHA is responsible for regulating the environment and established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos in 1986. Even though the limit is quite low, asbestos exposure has not been eliminated and certain manufacturing personnel are at risk. Other federal agencies including the EPA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are also responsible for overseeing asbestos limits.
If you were exposed to asbestos due to your occupation, you may be eligible for compensation from companies and organizations responsible for your exposure. A large asbestos trust fund has been established by companies who knew of the risk but continued use.
In addition, veterans who were exposed during active-duty service are often eligible for compensation through the VA. Both of these compensation types may include spousal recovery.
American Cancer Society, (18 May 2015), What is Mesothelioma?, ACS Cancer.org, Accessed on 01 February 2016 http://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignantmesothelioma/detailedguide/malignant-mesothelioma-malignant-mesothelioma
EPA, (National Cancer Institute, (04 December 2015), Asbestos, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/asbestos
MSHA, 2016), Asbestos, U.S. Department of Labor, Accessed on 01 February 2016 http://www.msha.gov/asbestos/asbestos.htm
National Cancer Institute, (2016), Malignant Mesothelioma – Health Professional Version, National Institutes of Health, Accessed on 01 February 2016 http://www.cancer.gov/types/mesothelioma/hp
OSHA, (2016), Safety & Health Topics: Asbestos, Occupational Safety & Health Administration Accessed on 01 February 2016 https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/