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Bulldozer Operators and Asbestos Exposure

Workers in the construction trades are often exposed to occupational hazards, among them, exposure to asbestos.

Demolition Exposure

During demolition of an old building, for example, it is likely that there will be asbestos-containing materials that were used in the construction of the site and which may allow for airborne exposure for workers such as bulldozer operators, crane workers and those helping clear the debris. Because asbestos is a top-grade insulator and fire retardant, it was used extensively in tiles, insulation and wallboard, and even mixed into adhesives. When left undisturbed, these asbestos-containing products are relatively benign, but in the chaotic, violent ripping and tearing asunder of a demolition worksite, asbestos particulates are released and the fibrous material fills the air. Many bulldozer operators worked amid swirling clouds of asbestos-laden dust without the protection of a closed cab and without proper respiratory protection.

Work Machinery Exposure

Even though regulations now call for the removal of asbestos-containing materials prior to demolition, other work site exposure risks remain. Heavy equipment - including bulldozers, excavators, and cranes - manufactured by leading construction and mining equipment company Caterpillar utilized over 200 asbestos-containing parts such as brake pads and gaskets. Machinery operators and those doing routine maintenance could be exposed to asbestos in the course of their work.

Legal Findings

In 2005, a jury awarded a former bulldozer operator a settlement of over $2 million, finding that his exposure to asbestos-containing materials was the cause of his mesothelioma. Caterpillar was found to be partially liable for utilizing defective products and for failing to warn of asbestos hazards.

Dangers at Work

It is a given that most occupations come with some risk of work-related injuries. Even so, people in today's society expect worker safety to be an important concern of companies, overseen legally. Until relatively recently, however, in terms of asbestos exposure, employees often toiled unprotected by protective equipment in environments where asbestos particles clouded the atmosphere.

Asbestos and Its Health Effects

There are two major types of asbestos. Chrysotile, or "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine group and was the form most commonly utilized. It is a relatively pliable variety that is usually not associated with asbestos cancer or mesothelioma. However, when breathed in, serpentine asbestos may result in irritation to the interior surfaces of the lungs. This in turn results in a build-up of scar tissue, which is a major factor in the development of asbestosis.

The second category is called the amphibole group; it is considered more dangerous to human health. Extensive contact with amphibole asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma, an unusual and almost always deadly disease affecting the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity). Pericardial and peritoneal mesotheliomas, which affect tissue surrounding the heart and digestive tract, respectively, are less common but also linked with being exposed to amphibole asbestos.

The Advantages of Asbestos

Asbestos was generally used in an effort to safeguard human life. The serpentine form of asbestos is one of the most effective insulators known when it comes to flames and temperature extremes and has been used for the purpose for centuries. In addition, amphibole asbestos had other useful characteristics. Amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, for instance, has a high iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was often found near electrical equipment since it is highly resistant to electricity. Depending on the application, various types of fibers were combined to create asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that safeguarded lives and property against fire, high temperatures, electrical contact and caustic chemicals.

Generally, new items built with asbestos or ACMs were considered innocuous as long as the asbestos fibers were trapped in something solid. A drawback of ACMs, however, is that with age they are prone to becoming friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Asbestos particles, when friable, are easily released into the atmosphere; once they enter the body through inhalation or ingestion, they can cause numerous health problems. Unless strict decontamination policies, such as using on-site uniforms and showers, were in place, it was all too common for people to bring particles of asbestos on their skin, in their hair, or on their clothing home, thereby endangering their loved ones.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

Asbestos-related diseases, unlike most job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, can take many, many years to develop. It can also be difficult to identify asbestos-related disorders since their symptoms resemble those of other conditions. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is diagnosed, the better the odds of survival or at the least of improved quality of life. Accordingly, it is extremely important for men and women who worked as bulldozer operators, as well as those who lived with them, to tell their physicians about the chance of asbestos exposure. The mesothelioma survival rate traditionally has been low, yet early diagnosis and treatments like mesothelioma radiation can improve the prognosis for this disease.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari

Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)

Bradley, Kenneth - Asbestos Verdict Against Caterpillar is a First, Plaintiff Counsel Says

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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