History of the Boilermaker Trade
"Boilermakers" are trades people whose job it is to build and install large heating and pressure containers, boilers and vats. These workers are also responsible for the maintenance and repair of old or broken boilers and are often called on to read and interpret blueprints, update boiler foundations with reference points, test boilers for leaks and defects, and assist crane operators in moving boilers.
Boilermakers Exposed to Asbestos on the Job
Beginning in the 1920's, boiler manufacturing companies favored the use of asbestos for insulation because it was inexpensive and very effective at fireproofing boilers. Several boiler manufacturers utilized asbestos extensively including Babcock & Wilcox, Combustion Engineering, Foster Wheeler, Kewanee and more. Asbestos served many functions. Pipes were wrapped with asbestos blankets, floors and walls were also blanketed to ensure heat and fire resistance, and joints and doors were sealed with asbestos gaskets.
Unfortunately, boilermakers, given the nature of their trade were frequently exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. This exposure, especially exposure of long duration, was later found to result in severe, sometimes fatal health issues. The risk was particularly high for boilermakers because their job function often required them to hammer and file rough areas on the edges of the boilers that contained asbestos. This process caused asbestos fibers to get into the air. Because they worked in tight spaces with inadequate ventilation, boilermakers were even more at risk for developing an asbestos related illness.
A boiler can last for thirty or more years. Older boilers require more maintenance and repair work often involving the replacement of old asbestos insulation with new material because it was cracked or damaged due to age. This is why boilermakers continue to have an elevated risk of asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Asbestosis are Common Diseases Found in Boilermakers
The dangers of asbestos exposure were becoming very obvious by the middle of the 1970's. There were more and more occurrences of workers developing pulmonary disease including lung cancer, asbestosis and the most severe form of asbestos cancer: mesothelioma. This was particularly evident in workers who had extended exposure to asbestos dust and fibers in an occupational setting. We will explore these illnesses in a little more detail:
Mesothelioma is a severe form of cancer. The primary mesothelioma cause is being exposed to asbestos. The disease can attack one or more areas but is generally seen in the lungs, the area surrounding the heart or in the abdomen. The organs themselves are not affected; rather it is the lining surrounding them that is attacked. Pleural mesothelioma is most commonly seen and involves the lining inside the lung. Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the stomach lining and pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining around the area of the heart.
Asbestos Related Lung Cancer
Unlike mesothelioma cancer, lung cancer can develop from exposure to a variety of substances. However, workers exposed to asbestos that also have a smoking history have a higher risk of developing lung cancer because the exposure can result in cancerous tumors that block the airways.
Asbestosis is a disease also caused exclusively by asbestos exposure where the exposure causes scar tissue to build in the lungs making it difficult for a person to breathe.
It is very common for much time to elapse from the end of asbestos exposure to the onset of an asbestos related disease. Oftentimes lung cancer will not show up until ten years after a person was exposed to asbestos and it is even long for asbestosis and mesothelioma. In those cases it can be as long as 30 or 40 years! This long latency period often delays diagnosis and contributes to a poor mesothelioma survival rate. Symptoms are often dismissed as common ailments in the early stages but can include chest pain, difficulty breathing, and a dry cough that may show blood.
Boilers are not consumable commodities and have a long life span. Therefore, asbestos exposure continues to be of concern in this trade as boilermakers are performing maintenance and repair work on older boilers that still contain asbestos material. In fact, there are still boilers being worked on today that contain asbestos which continues to put workers at risk for the above named diseases.