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The risk of asbestos exposure is high for construction workers, an occupation that employs around 10 million Americans each year. During the height of its use from the 1930s to the 1970s, many construction workers came into contact with asbestos-containing materials during demolitions, remodeling jobs and new construction projects. Some products still contain asbestos, posing a risk to workers today. 

01. Overview

How Are Construction Workers at Risk of Exposure

There was a huge increase in new construction after the 1920s through the 1980s and 1990s, which is also when asbestos was a popular building material, offering strength, durability and fireproofing qualities. Various trades within the construction industry are at risk of exposure.

At-Risk Trades
  • Bricklayers and stonemasons
  • Carpenters
  • Drywall tapers
  • Electricians
  • Electric power linemen
  • Insulators
  • Painters
  • Pipefitters
  • Plasterers
  • Plumbers
  • Roofers
  • Sawyers
  • Tile installers

Asbestos was used in various construction trades. Common asbestos construction materials that have been linked to cases of mesothelioma and related health risks include vinyl floor tiles, roof tiles and roof coatings, ceiling tiles, siding, insulation, plasters, paint and much more. As workers handle these materials on construction sites, the asbestos fibers can become disturbed and inhaled or ingested, putting them at risk of developing malignant mesothelioma.

Companies and manufacturers that produced commonly used asbestos-containing construction products include Armstrong tiling, Ruberoid siding and insulation, National Gypsum cement and siding and a variety of Johns Manville Corporation products. As a result, many of these companies have been forced to establish trust funds to compensate mesothelioma victims and their family members that faced exposure to their asbestos products, and continue to face asbestos lawsuits as cases emerge.

Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that 70 – 80% of asbestos exposure in the 20th century was attributed to construction workers. Out of the 23 states that were analyzed, 96.3% of deaths from malignant mesothelioma were linked to shipbuilding and construction industries. With millions of Americans being employed in the construction industry each year, construction workers are one of the highest risk occupations.

Due to the long latency period before a mesothelioma diagnosis, it can take decades for previously exposed workers to develop the disease, contributing to the nearly 10,000 newly diagnosed cases of malignant mesothelioma in construction workers each year. Workers also risk other asbestos diseases, such as asbestosis and other asbestos cancers. In addition to past exposure, asbestos continues to pose a risk to workers, stressing the importance of safety standards to help prevent occupational asbestos exposure.

02. Preventing Exposure

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Many protections have been put in place by organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help protect construction workers from asbestos exposure on the job.

  • The permissible exposure limit (PEL) and excursion limit (EL) require employers to limit asbestos exposure.
  • Engineering controls and work practices are required to limit exposure and offer respiratory protection.
  • Employers must offer proper hazard communication and demarcation.
  • Designated decontamination and lunch areas are required.
  • Medical surveillance must be provided for those exposed to levels at or above the PEL.
  • Employers must maintain proper record-keeping of potential exposures and employee medical surveillance.

Such precautions aim to protect workers from asbestos hazards in construction, provide them with resources on how to handle asbestos-containing products and document potential exposures and medical care given to workers that may have come into contact with asbestos. Due to asbestos not yet being fully banned in the United States, it’s crucial for employers and employees to recognize the hazards of asbestos exposure and take proper safety precautions to prevent the development of asbestos-related diseases, while also pushing towards a full ban.

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