Resources for Patients and their Families

Drill Press Operators and Asbestos Exposure

The job of drill press operators seems simple - to drill holes in various materials, particularly metal. This occupation does require a rigid set of skills, however, and safety is always a concern. Oklahoma's CareerTech system outlines the necessary capabilities for various occupations and provides a detailed assessment for the qualities necessary in a drill press operator.

Working with a drill press requires an understanding of terminology and the ability to follow directions. Mathematical and problem solving skills are needed. Most of all, the user needs to understand and adhere to safety procedures, and participate in training programs like those offered by OSHA.

Exposure Risks

While drill press operators today are protected by various safety measures, this was not so much the case in the past. Drill press operators are commonly used for metal fabrication to create tools and parts. Asbestos was a common material in metalworking up until the 1970s, as it was used in paint, coatings and polishing compounds. The asbestos coatings were used to prevent rust and insulate the materials against heat and fire.

On-the-job Dangers

It is accepted that almost all occupations come with some chance of job-related injuries. Still, in America today, people expect that on-the-job dangers will be kept to a minimum, risks will be clearly explained, and companies will make every effort to create a safe work environment. When it came to exposure to asbestos, however, this was not always the case, and even in recent history people were placed in situations that jeopardized their well-being.

The Types of Asbestos and Their Effects on Health

There are two major types of asbestos. Chrysotile, sometimes called "white" asbestos, is the only member of the serpentine category and was the type most frequently used. Usually not associated with asbestos cancer or mesothelioma, it is a relatively pliable variety of the mineral. However, when breathed in, serpentine fibers may result in irritation to the interior surfaces of the lungs. Asbestosis may then be the result when abrasions accumulate in the lungs.

Amphibole asbestos is the second type and is considered more deadly. Mesothelioma, an unusual and frequently lethal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), has been shown to be linked with exposure to asbestos, particularly the amphibole forms. Pericardial and peritoneal mesotheliomas, which affect the lining around the heart and stomach, respectively, are less common but also caused by being exposed to amphibole asbestos.

The Benefits of Asbestos

Ironically, asbestos was used when erecting building and in numerous products because of its ability to save lives. In terms of insulating against flames and heat, few substances can equal asbestos, especially the serpentine form. The amphiboles had additional traits that caused them to be useful in industrial situations. For instance, "brown" asbestos, or amosite, 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 kinds of fibers, many different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could be made that safeguarded lives and property against combustion, high temperatures, electrical contact and chemical burns.

As a rule, new items made with asbestos were considered safe as long as the asbestos fibers were trapped in something solid. However, as ACMs aged, they became friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Asbestos fibers, when they are friable, can be easily dispersed in the atmosphere, where they can cause health problems after they are inhaled or ingested. Unless strict decontamination protocols, such as using on-site uniforms and showers, were in place, it was all too common for personnel to bring home asbestos particles on themselves or their clothes., which in turn exposed their family members

The Ticking Bomb

Unlike typical work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, asbestos-related illnesses may take many, many years to appear. With such a lengthy time between asbestos exposure and the onset of symptoms, a worker might not associate the current health problem with work done decades earlier. New methods including mesothelioma radiation have been developed, and early detection gives the patient the best chance to combat the previously deathly disease. So, it is extremely important for all that worked as drill press operators, and those who spent much time with them, to tell their health care professionals about the possibility of asbestos exposure. The mesothelioma survival rate typically is grim, yet early diagnosis and consistent treatment can improve the prognosis for this disease.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari

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Roberta C. Barbalace - A Brief History of Asbestos Use and Associated Health Risks

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Dictionary of Occupation Titles - Drill-Press Operator

Sina Ebnesajjad and Pradib Khaladkar - Fluoropolymers Applications in Chemical Processing Industries

Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education - CareerTech - Machine Tool Drill Press Operator Skills Standards - PDF

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University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal