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The engineering, construction, operations and maintenance firm Burns and Roe has a history of designing and building complex facilities for the power, industrial, infrastructure and government services industries. It has taken on significant projects including nuclear power plants and military bases for clients ranging from Calpine and Unilever to government agencies like the U.S. Army and Department of Energy.

The company was founded in 1932 by Ralph Roe, Allan Burns, C.E. Lakin and J.P. Mailler after all four men lost their jobs at the Electric Management and Engineering Company. The company got a slow start, however, earning only $18,000 in its first year, and Lakin and Mailler grew uneasy and left for other ventures. Allan Burns followed suit two years later, leaving just Ralph Roe to run the company. Roe decided to keep the company name of “Burns and Roe” in order to keep a sense of continuity with its clients.

Company History

Burns and Roe got its first break in 1936, when it was contracted to build its first power plant. By the 1950, the company had expanded into the defense industry, constructing missile defense systems and completing missile installations for the U.S. Defense Department, as well as the aeronautics industry and nuclear power plants. Today, the Oradell, New Jersey-based Burns and Roe is being led by the third generation of the Roe family – Chairman, President and CEO Keith Row.

Asbestos Exposure Risk at Burns and Roe

For years, the construction industry turned to a naturally occurring mineral called asbestos to solve a number of its needs. The mineral was extremely useful to builders: its fire-resistant qualities and strength made it an ideal ingredient in drywall, fireproofing materials, millboard, and other materials, while its heat-resistance made it a logical choice for use in all kinds of insulation and pipe coverings. Power plant equipment such as boilers, turbines, generators and cables frequently contained asbestos in order to maintain safe working temperatures.

According to company leaders, Burns and Roe never produced asbestos products, but the company did work on job sites where asbestos products were used. “Like many other companies in its industry and other industries, Burns and Roe engineered and constructed facilities that, in accordance with government and client guidelines and then-existing industry standards, used asbestos-containing material,” a 2000 Burns and Roe press release said. “At that time, the use of asbestos was regulated, specified and encouraged by U.S. government agencies.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the dangers of asbestos were fully recognized. At that point, those government agencies decided to ban nearly all uses of the mineral – though there has been evidence that many companies and even the government were fully aware that asbestos was toxic long before they made the information public.

Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Individuals most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at Burns and Roe job sites are general contractors, construction workers, plumbers, power plant workers, supervisors, pipe fitters, architects or engineers. Virtually anyone who worked on a site where asbestos products were being used, or who worked in one of the completed buildings, could have been put at risk for developing an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma.

Recent News

In December 2000, Burns and Roe filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for one of its wholly-owned subsidiaries, Burns and Roe Enterprises Inc. As of that date, there were an estimated 13,500 outstanding asbestos-related claims against the company. The company still maintains that it has “little or no liability and many of these suits do not even involve the Company.”

Recent world events could also impact Burns and Roe’s business. The March 2010 earthquake in Japan and the subsequent nuclear power plant crisis has caused nuclear experts to question plans for five new nuclear plants in Thailand – huge projects that are being spearheaded by Burns and Roe.

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