Mixing operators work in a variety of industries and operate specialized equipment designed to precisely mix the contents of substances. During the years of asbestos use in industry, some of these substances contained asbestos, and mixing operators found themselves on the front lines of severe exposure.
Mixing Operators and Exposure
Mixing operators are often found in the chemical and construction industries. They are employed to operate machines that carefully introduce elements of a substance in precise proportions and then mix it. In the case of dry mixes, this process can create extraordinary amounts of dust.
An example of a dry mix is concrete. While the final product of poured and solidified concrete was relatively safe, as the asbestos would have been bound, the mixing operator who mixed the dry concrete powder would have been exposed to clouds of asbestos that could have easily been inhaled.
It should be noted that while the bound asbestos is not a danger after pouring, asbestos fibers will be released if the material is mechanically damaged by drilling, cutting, or sanding. Asbestos present in some roofing shingles and siding may also show slow deterioration due to weathering.
Asbestos was added to concrete and other concrete-like products as an enhancement to strength. Asbestos-containing cement products generally contained Portland cement, aggregate and chrysotile fibers. The asbestos content of the product varied up to 50 percent by weight depending on the use of the fiber.
These asbestos cement products were used as siding and roofing shingles, wallboard, corrugated and flat sheets for roofing, cladding, partitions and even as pipes. The raw material for all of these products begins as a powder that is mixed by a mixing operator to the correct proportions.
Dangers at Work
It is accepted that almost all jobs come with some risk of work-related injuries. Even so, most people in today's society have come to expect worker safety to be an important concern of companies, enforced by government regulations. Unfortunately, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met in terms of asbestos exposure, and workers were placed in situations that jeopardized their health.
The Kinds of Asbestos and Their Effects on Health
There are two major types of asbestos. Chrysotile, sometimes called "white" asbestos, is the only member of the serpentine category and was the kind most frequently used. Not normally associated with asbestos cancer or mesothelioma, it is a relatively soft form of the mineral. However, when breathed in, serpentine asbestos can result in abrasions on the inner surfaces of the lungs. Asbestosis may then be the outcome when abrasions accumulate in the pulmonary system.
The second classification is known as the amphibole group; it is much deadlier. A rare, and generally lethal, asbestos-related disease called mesothelioma is linked to inhaling asbestos, especially the amphibole varieties. The pleural form of mesothelioma, one which affects the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. More unusual forms of mesothelioma include peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma; these cancers are also caused by being exposed to amphibole asbestos.
The Strengths of Asbestos
Asbestos was generally utilized to protect people's lives. In terms of withstanding fire and high temperature, few substances can equal asbestos, especially the serpentine form. In addition, amphibole asbestos had other useful qualities. For instance, amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, has a high iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, is a particularly good insulator against electric current and was frequently used whenever high voltage was a concern. By combining different kinds of fibers, many different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could be formed that safeguarded lives and property against combustion, heat, electrical contact and caustic chemicals.
As long as it was solid, asbestos posed little danger. However, as ACMs aged, they became friable (i.e., easily reduced to powder by hand pressure alone). Asbestos particles, when friable, can be easily released into the air; inhaling asbestos fibers can cause diseases such as cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos dust that landed on employees' skin, hair, or clothing could also place others at risk unless strict decontamination policies, including the use of workplace-only clothing and on-site showers, were enforced.
Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger
In contrast to most job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, asbestos-related diseases can take many, many years to manifest. It can also be difficult to identify asbestos-related diseases because their symptoms are similar to those of other, less serious disorders. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner the diagnosis, the higher the chances of surviving or at the least of enjoying an improved quality of life. All who worked as mixing operators, and anyone who resided with them, should therefore notify their health care professionals about the chance of asbestos exposure. Even though the mesothelioma survival rate can be grim, yet early diagnosis and mesothelioma radiation, among other treatments, can improve the prognosis for this disease.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
EnvironmentalChemistry.com - A Brief History of Asbestos Use and Associated Health Risks
University of Michigan - Asbestos Awareness Training
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal