Workers at Risk

WHAT TRADES ARE AT HIGH RISK FOR EXPOSURE TO ASBESTOS?

The general public has only recently become aware of the dangers of asbestos. Sadly, it took many decades for the corporations that used asbestos in their products to either remove the asbestos or to warn hard-working tradesmen about the hazards of breathing in asbestos dust. As a result, workers in a variety of trades unknowingly exposed themselves to deadly dust without the benefit of personal protective equipment.

Asbestos is an extremely light weight, durable, heat resistant mineral, which is why it became such a popular ingredient in building materials. The construction boom in the early 20th century led to the development of many public schools, public housing units, offices, churches, sewage treatment plants, power plants, restaurants, bars and other buildings that used asbestos in one form or another. The use of asbestos in construction continued well into the 1970s. Later, as these older structures fell into disrepair, the workers charged with renovating and repairing them came into contact with asbestos.

Some of the highest-risk occupations for asbestos exposure include:

  • Aircraft mechanics
  • Auto mechanics
  • Bricklayers
  • Boilermakers (a/k/a Boiler Tenders)
  • Carpenters
  • Cement Finishers
  • Electricians
  • Engineers
  • Firefighters
  • Foundry Workers
  • HVAC Mechanics
  • Insulators (a/k/a Asbestos Workers)
  • Laborers
  • Machinists (a/k/a Machinist’s Mates)
  • Mechanics
  • Painters (a/k/a Tapers)
  • Pipefitters
  • Plumbers
  • Roofers
  • Sheet Metal Workers
  • Steamfitters
  • US Navy Sailors
  • Welders
  • 9/11 first responders

This is not an exhaustive list — any number of tradesmen may encounter asbestos on the job, and it is vital for these individuals to know their rights after a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.

HOW DO WORKERS GET EXPOSED TO ASBESTOS?

Construction Industry

Construction workers and contractors can come into contact with asbestos when they are remodeling and rehabbing the property. On buildings constructed before the 1980s, many materials and products were used which contained asbestos. Construction workers who were involved in the initial construction, or the repairs and maintenance performed later on were all at risk for exposure to asbestos. Residential buildings are often built with asbestos-containing products, including the following: joint compound, ceiling tiles, caulking, floor tiles, roofing products, electrical equipment, and HVAC equipment such as boilers, furnaces, and associated equipment.

Power plant and industrial plant workers

Asbestos is resistant to heat, electricity, and fire, which made it an attractive option for companies to use at industrial plants and power plants. Insulation for piping, fireproofing spray, and gaskets are just a few of the factory and plant elements that have contained asbestos. Furthermore, the equipment associated with piping, including pumps, valves, steam traps, turbines and boilers, contained a variety of asbestos-containing components like gaskets, rope packing, and insulating cement. Sometimes the products being manufactured also included asbestos, such as construction products, some plastics, and textiles. One study found that as many as 33% of power plant workers had asbestos particles in their mucus.

Veterans and Shipyard Workers

Military bases were frequent scenes of asbestos use, due to its lightweight, cost-effective, and fireproof nature. In fact, around 30% of mesothelioma claims are filed by Veterans. The heat-resistant properties of asbestos also made it an attractive insulating material for ships both for the Navy and for civilian use, which means that shipyard workers building and taking apart ships have likely been exposed. In addition, people that served aboard Navy ships were likely exposed to asbestos from repair work performed on asbestos-containing equipment pursuant to the preventive maintenance schedules (PMS) used by the Navy to maintain the vessels. People that worked in the engine rooms, pump rooms, and boiler rooms of Navy ships prior to the 1990s are likely to have been exposed to asbestos.

Auto Mechanics

For many years automobiles contained a variety of asbestos-containing component parts including brake linings, clutch linings, head gaskets, and exhaust systems, to name a few. Auto mechanics regularly installed and removed these components as they deteriorated over time. During the installation and removal of these asbestos-containing component parts, mechanics would have to use tools like grinders, emery cloths, sandpaper, and air hoses, all of which caused the asbestos that was in the products to become airborne. In addition, working in a garage with other mechanics doing the same work created an even more contaminated workspace.

Firefighting

Firefighting personal protective equipment, such as jackets, helmets, and pants, were made with asbestos. Wear and tear of the clothing over time can lead to the release of asbestos particles. Fire itself can also release asbestos products into the air through smoke, endangering firefighters on the site of a burning. For example, thousands of firefighters were exposed to asbestos with the cataclysmic collapse of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Other occupations at risk

Asbestos was widely used in a number of diverse contexts since the 1800s, up until the 1980s when public awareness of its dangers increased. If you worked in any of these industries or in any industry where you were likely exposed to products that used asbestos, it is certainly more than prudent to have a conversation with your doctor.

CAN WORKERS TAKE HOME ASBESTOS ON THEIR CLOTHING AND EXPOSE THEIR FAMILIES?

Unfortunately, minuscule asbestos fibers (measured in microns) can get caught in a worker’s hair or clothing, allowing the deadly dust to contaminate their homes. Oftentimes, an unknowing spouse can become exposed to high concentrations of asbestos dust by simply shaking out their loved one’s work clothing.

WHAT TYPES OF CANCER ARE CAUSED BY EXPOSURE TO ASBESTOS?

Many types of asbestos-related illnesses do not manifest symptoms until they have progressed beyond a point of treatment, or at least a point of easy treatment.

Mesothelioma is the signature disease associated with exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the lungs. Under normal conditions, the lung lining is meant to protect the lungs from the friction created during their normal expansion and contraction within the chest cavity. With mesothelioma, the cancer spreads out along this thin material that encases the lungs and creates a hardened shell around the lung which makes it difficult to breathe. When a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma their doctor will undoubtedly ask them how they were exposed to asbestos as opposed to if they were exposed.

Mesothelioma is a human-created disease that did not exist before asbestos was incorporated into industrial products. The disease is totally preventable by simply avoiding contact with asbestos fibers, but since the companies who made asbestos products failed to warn workers and end-users about the dangers of breathing in asbestos dust, generations of people have unknowingly put their lives at risk. Mesothelioma is insidious because the disease often develops decades after initial exposure to asbestos. Worse yet, most people are asymptomatic until the disease is so far developed that it is very difficult to treat. To date, there is no cure for mesothelioma but there have been great strides in life-extending medical treatment.

While it is well known that exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, many people do not realize that research has also linked asbestos to other types of cancer as well, such as lung cancer, colon cancer, stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, and laryngeal cancer.

Lung cancer occurs in the parenchymal of the lung, which is basically the lung tissue. This is very different than mesothelioma which usually occurs in the lining of the lung. Many people do not realize that smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer. Indeed, large studies of workers that were exposed to asbestos showed an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Furthermore, this risk is increased even more if the worker smoked cigarettes in addition to working around asbestos. The combined exposures create what is known as an “additive synergism” when describing the increased risk of developing lung cancer. Therefore, smokers that worked in the building trades for many years should consider regular screening for lung cancer given the increased risks.

Colorectal cancer or colon cancer is actually the second leading cause of cancer-related death among men in the United States, and third among women. Colorectal cancer is a disease that occurs in the large intestine and/or rectal area. Usual risk factors that may cause colorectal cancer are obesity, smoking, frequent and heavy alcohol consumption, type 2 diabetes, physical inactivity, and a family history of colorectal cancer. However, several studies conducted between the 1980s and the present have suggested possible correlations between an increased risk for colorectal cancer and asbestos exposure.

Stomach cancer or gastrointestinal cancer refers to any of the cancers that impact the stomach and upper digestive system. This can include cancerous diseases of the gallbladder, pancreas, or liver. Smoking, alcohol, and obesity are the leading risk factors associated with this disease, but some studies have suggested that asbestos exposure might also play a role. For example, a 2005 study of lighthouse keepers in Norway found that those who regularly consumed asbestos-tainted water were at greater risk of developing stomach cancer. Similar studies have also shown correlations.

Esophageal cancer is a disease that occurs in the esophagus, a muscular tube lined with mucus that carries food to the throat. Alcohol consumption and smoking are some of the leading established causes of esophageal cancer, but recent research has indicated there may be links between it and asbestos exposure. It would certainly make sense, as asbestos particles inhaled in the air could easily enter the mouth and gullet. If asbestos exposure was a likelihood in your workplace you could be at increased risk for esophageal cancer.

Laryngeal cancer is a disease impacting the larynx, which is also called the voice box. This hollow muscular organ holds the human vocal cords and can become subject to an increased risk of disease for drinkers and smokers. However, recent studies have placed clear links between asbestos exposure and an increased likelihood of developing laryngeal cancer. This study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health at the behest of Congress, found that cancer risk was also dependent on the amount of exposure, in terms of both duration and extent.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with any one of these cancers you should contact our law firm. In many cases, a victim can avail themselves of the compensation made available to workers and consumers who have been exposed to asbestos through the willful negligence of a product manufacturer, contractor, or premises owner.