Resources for Patients and their Families

Crane Operators Exposed to Asbestos

Crane operators are required to operate large, complex equipment that historically has had various safety concerns. These include operating in tall structures that are exposed to hazards of wind and potential design flaws. One mistake in the moving of heavy machinery or building materials can easily topple a crane. The job requires a great deal of attention for long periods of time.

The safety of crane operation is the focus of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO). The independent, not-for-profit organization has created a nationwide program to minimize accidents and risk and provide access to proper training. Certification programs focus on specific crane operating jobs, such as for mobile, tower or overhead cranes or others. Access to various training resources is provided directly from the organization's website, as well as to the NCCCO's examinations for certification. All of its programs meet OSHA regulations.


Safety has involved both skilled operation and exposure to materials such as asbestos. Early measures focused on the brakes, so brake pads that could handle heat, friction and fire were necessary. Asbestos meets these requirements and was standard for use in the cloth of brake pads in crane operating equipment. The friction the brake pads frequently underwent caused asbestos fibers to flake off in the air. Operators were first in line at risk of inhaling these fibers.

Commercial building construction frequently involved spraying of asbestos installation. During spraying, asbestos would be exposed to the air. Crane operators worked for long hours in direct contact with this dust.

Another particularly dangerous place for crane operators was shipyards. Following World War II, asbestos was popular in shipbuilding. To this day, it is a hazard during the retrofitting of old ships, since asbestos doesn't break down with time.

Risks on the Job

While some occupations, such as firefighter, soldier, or professional football player, are associated with obvious and well-known hazards, people generally acknowledge that most jobs present a chance for work-related injuries. Even so, most people in America today expect worker safety to be an important priority of employers, enforced by government agencies. Unfortunately, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met when it came to asbestos exposure, and employees were placed in situations that jeopardized their health.

Varieties of Asbestos and Their Effects on Health

There are two major kinds of asbestos. Chrysotile, sometimes referred to "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine group and was the kind most frequently utilized. Usually not associated with mesothelioma or asbestos cancer, this type is a relatively pliable variety of the mineral. Irritation to the interior surfaces of the lungs can result if serpentine fibers are inhaled, however. Asbestosis can be the outcome when abrasions accumulate in the pulmonary system.

The other classification is called amphibole asbestos and is much more dangerous to human health. A rare, and generally deadly, disease caused by asbestos called mesothelioma is linked to inhaling asbestos, especially the amphibole varieties. The pleural variety of the illness, one which affects the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most prevalent. Less common types of mesothelioma include pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma; these diseases are also linked with being exposed to amphibole asbestos.

The Benefits of Asbestos

Asbestos was generally used in an effort to safeguard human life. Serpentine asbestos is one of the most effective insulators known when it comes to flames and temperature extremes and has been used for this purpose since ancient times. In addition, amphibole asbestos had other useful qualities. Amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, for instance, has a high iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, is a particularly good insulator against electric current and was frequently used whenever high voltage was a concern. By combining multiple types of fibers, many different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could be formed that protected people and property against fire, extreme temperatures, electrocution and chemical burns.

Asbestos did not pose a health risk so long as it remained solid. A disadvantage of ACMs however, is that as they age they are prone to becoming friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. When they are friable, asbestos fibers are readily dispersed in the atmosphere; once they enter the body through inhalation or ingestion, they can cause numerous health problems. Asbestos fibers that fell on employees' skin, hair or clothing could also place others at risk unless effective decontamination policies, like using workplace-only clothing and on-site showers, were followed.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

One of the insidious aspects of exposure to asbestos is the associated illnesses may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest - frequently decades after a worker has retired from the employer. The symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma - a chronic cough and shortness of breath (also known as dyspnea) - may often be confused with the symptoms of other, less serious conditions. New therapies for mesothelioma are being discovered, and early detection gives patients and their doctors the highest chance to beat the once deathly form of cancer. Therefore, it is vital for all that worked as crane operators, as well as anyone who spent much time with them, to inform their health care professionals about the possibility of exposure to asbestos. The mesothelioma survival rate traditionally has been grim, still early diagnosis and consistent 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)

National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators

Seattle Post-Intelligencer - A Crane Operator Explains Risks, Joy

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal