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Electric Power Linemen and Asbestos Exposure

The jobs of electric power linemen require strict adherence to safety protocols. This includes having the skills and training needed to know the difference between exposed live wire and safe electrical equipment. Linemen must know the procedure for determining the voltage of live parts and have knowledge of clearance distance vs. the corresponding voltages they are exposed to. Classroom and on-the-job training are sufficient to train linemen for the job.

Workplace Dangers

The most immediate danger for linemen is the risk of electrocution. The worker must always know his or her proximity to energized sources and their voltage level. Aside from direct contact with electricity, arcs of current through the air present a hazard, while blasts can harm people up to 10 feet away.

Safety measures include knowing the procedures for when a mishap occurs. Linemen should have CPR and first aid training in case they are the first line of rescue. Also, constant communication during work is important so that everyone on site will know what is happening, particularly when circuits are isolated and when power is restored.

On-the-job Risks

While some occupations, such as firefighter, police officer, or professional football player, are associated with clear and well-known hazards, we all understand that most jobs present a chance for some work-related injuries. Even so, people in America today expect worker safety to be an important priority of companies, under the jurisdiction of government regulations. In terms of asbestos exposure, however, this was not always the case, and even in recent history employees were subjected to conditions that placed their lives at risk.

Asbestos and Its Health Effects

Asbestos is actually the name given to a group of minerals that is divided into two classifications. Chrysotile, or "white" asbestos, is the only member of the serpentine category and was the kind most commonly utilized. It is a relatively pliable variety that is usually not associated with mesothelioma or asbestos cancer. However, if breathed in, serpentine asbestos may result in irritation to the interior surfaces of the lungs. This then causes an accumulation of scar tissue, which is a leading factor in the development of asbestosis.

The other type is known as amphibole asbestos and is much more deadly. Being exposed to amphibole asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma, an unusual but frequently lethal cancer of the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity). Exposure to amphibole asbestos is also linked to pericardial or peritoneal mesotheliomas, diseases that damage tissue surrounding the heart and digestive tract, respectively.

The Strengths of Asbestos

Asbestos was generally used to safeguard human life. In terms of withstanding fire and heat, few substances can equal asbestos, especially the serpentine form. The amphiboles had additional characteristics that caused them to be useful for industrial situations. For instance, amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, has a high iron content, making it resistant to chemical corrosion. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was frequently used around electrical equipment since it is highly resistant to electrical current. ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) that could protect lives and property against flames, high temperatures, electrocution and chemical burns could be made by combining multiple kinds of fibers.

As long as it remained solid, asbestos posed almost no hazard. As these ACMs aged, however, they were prone to becoming friable (i.e., easily reduced to powder by hand pressure alone). Friable asbestos is dangerous since in this state the fibers can be easily dispersed in the atmosphere; once they enter the body through inhalation or ingestion, they can cause numerous health problems. Unfortunately, it wasn't just workers who were at risk; secondary exposure frequently occurred when people carried asbestos particles home on their skin, in their hair, or on their clothing.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

Unlike most workplace injuries, which are readily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, asbestos-related illnesses may take many, many years to manifest. With such a lengthy time between exposure to asbestos and the appearance of the resulting disease, a worker may not even associate the current condition with work he or she did 10 or more years ago. Especially with mesothelioma, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the odds of surviving or at least of improved quality of life. Men and women who worked as electric power linemen, as well as those who spent much time with them, should therefore inform their physicians about the chance of exposure to asbestos. Typically, the mesothelioma survival rate is grim, yet 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)

Naval Safety Center - Unified Facilities Criteria, Electrical Safety O and M

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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