Asbestos once played a large role in American manufacturing and production for its heat and chemical resistance, and can still be found in building materials and products workers in various industries use today. Unfortunately, the workers who handle those materials and finished products are at high risk of occupational exposure caused by loose asbestos fibers. Though asbestos use has declined, small amounts of the mineral are still legally allowed in certain products, including building materials and automotive parts. Since the mineral is not banned and was utilized so heavily in the past, workers across various industries are still at risk of exposure today.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an estimated 27 million employees between 1940 and 1979 were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. The World Health Organization suggests that each year, more than 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos while working.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 40,100 people died from malignant mesothelioma between 2005 and 2014. Of those deaths, nearly 70% were work-related. Asbestos-related diseases typically have long latency periods spanning decades, meaning workers and their loved ones may have been exposed while working and are now facing adverse health effects. For those currently being exposed to asbestos on the job, they may not be diagnosed with a disease for several more decades.
The CDC notes that employees in the construction industry are among those with the highest rates of exposure, with an estimated 1.3 million construction workers coming into contact with asbestos on the job each year. Construction workers often work inside older buildings and homes where the mineral was used as a fire retardant and strengthener. Floor tiles, joint compound, siding and plaster are all products that contain asbestos.
Engineers are employed in a variety of industries and often don’t work directly with asbestos or asbestos-containing products, but supervise and work closely with employees who do. Oftentimes, their exposure is connected to working in the same area as employees who are handling asbestos materials and being in close proximity to the toxic dust created on the jobsite.
The farming industry has shown high rates of asbestos exposure, affecting dairy farmers, poultry farmers, agricultural equipment operators and many other farming trades. Exposure has occurred during operation and repairs of farming equipment with asbestos-containing components, from the deterioration and renovation of old farm buildings and for farmers working near naturally occurring asbestos when land is disturbed.
Firefighters are among the occupations most likely to come into contact with airborne asbestos fibers. This is because older homes and buildings often contain many different asbestos products, ranging from insulation and tiling to roofing materials and consumer goods. Studies have shown that firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma compared to the general public, largely due to repeated exposure while responding to emergencies.
Hairdressers are at risk of coming into contact with asbestos fibers through prolonged and frequent use of hair dryers that contained the mineral as an insulator. Although asbestos is no longer actively used in manufacturing hair dryers today, studies have shown that older hair dryers produced prior to the late 1970s did release toxic fibers into the surrounding air.
HVAC workers, boilermakers and pipefitters all sometimes work in tight spaces where asbestos was used, including inside public buildings, residential homes and even large boilers. Workers in this industry may be exposed to high concentrations of airborne asbestos fibers while performing maintenance work, installations or while repairing boilers installed decades ago using asbestos materials.
These workers are often employed in factories and power plants, working in areas where high heat and chemical exposure are common. Workers may come into contact with asbestos while handling refractory products, gaskets, valves and even protective clothing worn to resist high temperatures. Because of the mineral’s prevalence in the workplace, more industrial workers die of mesothelioma compared to other occupations.
Machine operators work in factories and plants, and often operate heavy equipment like bulldozers and cranes. Workers in these jobs frequently came into contact with high-friction asbestos products, like brake linings. As machine operators use various tools to scrape, drill and cut materials in their daily duties, asbestos fibers may be released into the air.
Aircraft, heavy equipment and auto mechanics come into contact with asbestos primarily while performing brake jobs and other tasks that involve friction parts. While most manufacturers have moved away from using asbestos-containing brake parts, mechanics may still be exposed to the mineral while working on an older vehicle or when using imported automotive products.
Merchant Mariners are associated with the U.S. Navy and spend much of their time aboard ships. During World War II, many Merchant Mariners were exposed to asbestos while performing repairs and other maintenance away from port. The toxic mineral could be found throughout the ships, especially in boiler and engine rooms due to the heat generated in those areas of the ship. Due to the high rates of asbestos exposure, one study of 3,000 Merchant Mariners discovered lung abnormalities in about 40% of those workers.
Asbestos was often sprayed on metal beams as a fire retardant and attached to metal materials bent, drilled and shaped by metal workers. The mineral was also found in welding rods used by welders, in the plaster that lathers sanded and in protective clothing, including inside gloves and blankets.
Oil or petroleum refinery workers help process the fuels and oils Americans use everyday, from gasoline and diesel fuel to paraffins, plastics and kerosene. Unfortunately, these workers often encounter asbestos inside of old electrical products, cements, protective clothing and thermal insulation. Research has shown that workers in this industry typically face prolonged asbestos exposure, and as a result, face among the highest mesothelioma mortality rates.
Asbestos was widely used throughout much of the 20th century in the railroad industry. It can be found in everything from flooring inside of train cars, to brake pads, rail ties and steam engines. Railroad workers may also face exposure from naturally occurring asbestos while digging new rail lines.
Shipyard workers often worked with asbestos-containing materials while building and repairing ships. Because of the risk fire poses to a ship at sea, asbestos materials could be found almost anywhere on the vessels, including asbestos insulation, pipe coverings and valves. Since the mineral was used so widely, shipyard workers are among the most at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.
These are only a few of the many occupations at risk of developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Despite federal regulations in place protecting workers from unnecessary asbestos exposure while on the job, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) both stress that there is no safe level of occupational asbestos exposure.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Asbestos Exposure and Reducing Exposure. Updated November 2016.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Asbestos Toxicity: Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos? Updated August 2016.
Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos.
Mazurek JM, Syamlal G, et al. Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States, 1999–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. March 2017; 66(8): 214–218. doi: 10.15585%2Fmmwr.mm6608a3
National Cancer Institute. Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. Updated June 2017.