Industrial engineers are professionals who often work behind desks rather than on the front lines of manufacturing plants, oil refineries, steel mills or other industrial fields. However, that doesn't mean that they don't get out in the field.
The goal of industrial engineers is to identify business practices that will be more efficient and more profitable. Industrial engineers work with factory owners and operators to ensure both better customer service and better product quality - all while making sure that the work environment for staff is safe, fast and as rewarding as possible. In other words, industrial engineers are those professionals who are focused on improving processes, reducing costs, increasing safety, helping business owners do more with less and ultimately helping companies to produce more products in less time.
In part, this means that industrial engineers are focused on figuring out what can be done to make things better. They engineer processes and systems that eliminate waste - the waste of materials, money, energy, time and other commodities. They are trained to enhance productivity and improve the overall quality of goods and services produced by a company.
In order to perform their function effectively, industrial engineers must personally observe the work that is being done. In steel mills, this means looking into everything in the process - from ensuring that the smelter or furnace is working properly to identifying the best procedure for bringing in supplies and eliminating waste. At oil refineries, this means evaluating crude pipelines, identifying the best processes for refining crude, and establishing the best shipping options for getting finished product to the customers. It is during these evaluations that industrial engineers may have been exposed to asbestos-containing products.
Dangers at Work
While certain occupations, such as firefighter, police officer, or professional football player, come with clear and well-understood dangers, people generally realize that most jobs present a chance for some work-related injuries. Still, in modern society, we generally expect that on-the-job hazards will be minimized, risks will be clearly communicated, and employers will make every effort to create a safe workplace. Unfortunately, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met when it came to asbestos exposure, and workers were subjected to conditions that jeopardized their health.
Kinds of Asbestos and Their Effects on Human Health
There are two major types of asbestos. The most frequently used was chrysotile (sometimes called "white" asbestos), or serpentine asbestos. It is a relatively soft form that is not normally linked to asbestos cancer or mesothelioma. Abrasions on the inner surfaces of the lungs may happen if chrysotile fibers are breathed in, however. Asbestosis can be the outcome when abrasions accumulate in the pulmonary system.
The second classification is called amphibole asbestos; of the two types, it is much more deadly. Coming into contact with amphibole asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma, a rare and all too often fatal cancer of the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity). Extensive contact with amphibole asbestos is also a cause of pericardial or peritoneal mesotheliomas, which affect the lining around the heart and digestive tract, respectively.
The Benefits of Asbestos
Given what we know today, it is ironic that asbestos was used in erecting homes and in manufacturing many items because of its ability to save lives. Serpentine asbestos is one of the best insulators known when it comes to combustion and heat and has been used for this purpose throughout history. Amphibole forms of asbestos had additional qualities that caused them to be useful for industrial situations. "Brown" asbestos, or amosite, for instance, has a high iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was frequently utilized on electrical equipment since it is highly resistant to electricity. ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) that would protect people against fire, extreme temperatures, electrocution and caustic chemicals could be formed by combining different kinds of fibers.
Asbestos did not present a health risk while it was solid. As these ACMs aged, however, they were prone to becoming friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this state the fibers can be readily dispersed into the air; once they infiltrate one's body via inhalation or ingestion, they can lead to various health problems. Asbestos dust that adhered to employees' skin, hair, or clothing could also place others at risk unless effective decontamination policies, including the use of on-site showers, were in place.
The Time Bomb
As opposed to most workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, asbestos-related diseases can take many, many years to develop. Given such a lag between exposure to asbestos and the manifestation of symptoms, a worker may not connect the current health problem with work he or she did up to 40 years earlier. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is caught, the better the odds of surviving or at least of improved quality of life. So, it is vital for people that worked as industrial engineers, and those who lived with them, to notify their doctors about the possibility of asbestos exposure. Very often, the mesothelioma survival rate is grim, yet early diagnosis and consistent treatments like mesothelioma radiation can improve the prognosis for this disease.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
Institute of Industrial Engineers
The Global Association of Productivity and Efficiency Professionals - What IEs (Industrial Engineers) Do
O*NET OnLine - Industrial Engineers
The Princeton Review - Industrial Engineers
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
The World Wide Web Virtual Library - Industrial Engineering