Operating engineers maintain and operate a variety of equipment in the fields of excavation and construction. Operating engineers commonly command some of the largest pieces of equipment on a jobsite, including bulldozers, backhoes and road graders.
Asbestos Exposure for Operating Engineers
The sources of asbestos exposure for operating engineers can be varied. One of the most obvious sources is the machinery itself. Caterpillar is one of the nation's largest heavy equipment manufacturers. As recently as 2001, Caterpillar equipment used as many as 200 parts containing asbestos, including brake pads and linings and gaskets in high friction areas that build up heat or static electricity that could cause a spark. Exposure to asbestos in this way is passive - simply by operating the machinery, which is essential to the job.
Another way that operating engineers can be exposed to asbestos is through interaction with older jobsites. Bulldozer, backhoe and road grader operators can encounter asbestos while demolishing an older building that contained asbestos or when repaving a road that integrated asbestos into the roadbed for strength. Dust ejected into the air by the construction process can contain asbestos, which was used for a variety of purposes before it was regulated in the 1980s.
As an example, road grader operators are at risk from asbestos dust that is mixed with the gravel in the road. When excavating rock at a gravel pit, it is not uncommon to encounter seams of asbestos, which are then included in the gravel. While this has been regulated in recent years and new gravel must be screened for asbestos, any construction or demolition of older roads will turn up traces of asbestos.
Operating engineers sometimes have a very dirty job, and in the course of the day they may become covered in a fine dust. If this dust contains asbestos, it is possible that it could be transported home and affect the health and well-being of other members of the family.
Dangers at Work
It is accepted that most occupations come with at least some risk of job-related injuries. Even so, people in America today have come to expect worker safety to be an important concern of companies, overseen by government agencies. Unfortunately, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met in terms of asbestos exposure, and people were placed in situations that jeopardized their well-being.
Asbestos and Its Health Effects
What we call asbestos is actually a group of minerals that is divided into two classifications. Chrysotile, also known as "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine category and was the type most commonly utilized. It is a relatively soft form that is usually not linked to mesothelioma or asbestos cancer. However, when breathed in, serpentine fibers can result in abrasions on the inner surfaces of the lungs. Asbestosis can be the outcome when scar tissues build up in the pulmonary system.
The second classification is known as the amphibole group and is considered more dangerous to human health. A uncommon, and generally fatal, disease caused by asbestos called mesothelioma is caused by inhaling asbestos, especially the amphibole varieties. The pleural form of mesothelioma, which attacks the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most prevalent. Pericardial and peritoneal mesotheliomas, diseases that damage the lining around the heart and stomach, respectively, are more unusual but also caused by being exposed to amphibole asbestos.
Why It Was Used
Asbestos was generally used in an effort to safeguard people's lives. In terms of withstanding flames and high temperature, few things can equal asbestos, especially the serpentine form. In addition, amphibole asbestos had other useful qualities. For instance, amosite, sometimes called "brown" asbestos, is high in iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was generally utilized in areas with electrical equipment because of its resistance to electrical current. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that safeguarded people and property against flames, heat, electrocution and caustic chemicals could be made by combining multiple kinds of fibers.
For the most part, new items built with ACMs were considered innocuous as long as the asbestos particles were trapped in something solid. However, as ACMs aged, they became friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. When they are friable, asbestos particles are readily released in the air; inhaling asbestos fibers can cause diseases such as cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos fibers that adhered to employees' skin, hair, or clothing could also place others at risk unless strict safety measures, such as using on-site showers, were in place.
Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger
In contrast to typical job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, asbestos-related diseases can take many, many years to develop. When a former employee starts showing symptoms such as chronic coughing, pain in the chest or abdomen and shortness of breath, his or her doctor may not at first recognize asbestos exposure as the culprit, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment. Mesothelioma radiation and other new treatments are being developed, and early detection provides patients the best chance of beating the once deathly form of cancer. Such advancements may help better the usually grim mesothelioma survival rate. So, it is very important for people who worked as operating engineers, as well as those who lived with them, to tell their physicians about the possibility of exposure to asbestos.
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
Kent Surveys - Types of Asbestos Fibres
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal