Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral known for its durability, which led to its extensive use in construction, insulation, plumbing, and various industrial materials from the early 1900s until 1980. However, the severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure only became widely known later, causing millions of workers to suffer from its effects.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they significantly increase the risk of asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, affecting a large number of workers today.
Despite the known risks, asbestos continues to be used in construction and industrial work, often due to misleading claims by contractors and companies that suggest safe usage with careful handling. It’s crucial to understand that all such claims are entirely false, as no level of asbestos exposure is safe for humans and should be completely avoided. Additionally, it’s important to note that asbestos-related diseases don’t develop immediately but take time, underscoring the need to protect individuals in occupations exposed to asbestos.
Below is a list of occupations at the highest risk of asbestos exposure, particularly those using materials containing asbestos fibers or experiencing secondhand exposure.
Construction workers face the greatest risk of asbestos exposure, as highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This heightened risk is attributed to the extensive use of asbestos in the construction industry due to its durability, placing site workers in direct contact with this hazardous mineral.
Renovation and demolition teams are also at a significant risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This is because structures constructed before 1980 extensively used asbestos in their building materials, given its reputation for exceptional durability. As a result, construction workers constitute the demographic with the highest number of mesothelioma claims, as they continue to work with asbestos for extended periods before the manifestation of this deadly cancer in later life.
- Industry Workers
Another group of individuals engaged in asbestos-exposed occupations includes industry workers, particularly those working with machinery, foremen, insulators, chemical workers, and power plant employees. These professionals encounter asbestos in the process of manufacturing brake pads, gaskets, paper, textiles, insulation, and fireproofing materials, among others.
Here are some ways in which industry workers are at risk of asbestos exposure:
- Insulators: These workers handle thermal insulation materials that often contain asbestos, putting them at risk during installation and replacement.
- Power Plant Workers: Constant exposure to reactive and toxic chemicals in power plants exposes these workers to asbestos, even when wearing protective gear.
- Machinists: Machinists work with industrial equipment that may contain asbestos, posing a risk to their health.
First responders, including firefighters, often face asbestos exposure when battling blazes in buildings constructed before 1980. These older structures used asbestos-containing materials, which release asbestos fibers into the air when they catch fire. Firefighters can inhale these fibers while extinguishing the flames.
Common asbestos-containing products in these structures include insulation, pipes, roofing materials, tiles, and fireproofing materials. Unfortunately, firefighters cannot predict the presence of asbestos when responding to a fire, putting them at risk of exposure. Just in April 2023, officials reported that debris from a giant fire at a plastics recycling plant in Richmond, Indiana, contained asbestos as firefighters moved closer to fully dousing the blaze.
- Vehicular and Aircraft Mechanics
Mechanics who work on vehicles and aircraft encounter asbestos exposure regularly. Automobiles contain asbestos in components like brake shoes, clutches, linings, and heat shields, especially in older vehicles. When these parts are replaced, mechanics may be exposed to asbestos dust.
Aircraft mechanics face a similar risk, as aircraft systems may contain asbestos, particularly in brakes and landing gear. Repairing and replacing these systems can lead to asbestos exposure.
- Plumbers and Electricians
Occupations related to the maintenance of older buildings, such as plumbing and electrical work, often involve asbestos exposure. Plumbing systems in older buildings frequently used asbestos-containing materials due to their resistance to heat and corrosion. Plumbers currently working on these systems are at risk of exposure.
Electricians deal with electrical components like wires, panels, and motor controllers that may contain asbestos insulation. They also work near construction crews using asbestos-containing materials, increasing their risk of exposure. Workers in these roles should be knowledgeable about asbestos exposure prevention.
- Shipyard and Naval Workers
Shipyard and naval workers currently face some of the highest risks of asbestos exposure. Employees engaged in demolition and repair work often handle old materials containing asbestos.
Ships retired in shipyards today still contain asbestos products. Although certain materials were temporarily sealed to minimize exposure risks, they remain a concern for workers during the decommissioning phase. Moreover, asbestos products are still used in shipbuilding due to their fire-resistant properties, posing risks to the entire ship’s crew.
- Military Members and Veterans
Every branch of the military extensively used asbestos in construction from the 1930s to the early 1980s. These were buildings where army personnel lived and worked. Asbestos was also used in various components of army vehicles, such as trucks and tanks. It also played a vital role in insulation products, including pipe insulation, block insulation, and fireproofing.
Outdated military facilities and ships still contain asbestos, endangering active military personnel. Additionally, many veterans transition to civilian careers that expose them to asbestos.
Asbestos exposure poses significant health risks to workers who have encountered this mineral throughout their careers. Construction workers, industry professionals, plumbers, mechanics, builders, repair personnel, and veterans often experience asbestos exposure while working with contaminated materials. This exposure has led to a high incidence of mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer among these workers.
Removing asbestos from older structures and constructing newer, asbestos-free buildings is crucial to prevent future generations from suffering the health consequences of asbestos exposure.