Resources for Patients and their Families

Engineers and Asbestos Exposure

Different Types of Engineers Exposed to Asbestos

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers work on the design of city and transportation infrastructure. They also oversee construction sites as the demolition, building and other phases of construction projects are ongoing. The building or repair of roads, streets and highways, as well as buildings, encompasses some common civil engineering projects. Projects also include work on airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, sewer systems and water supply pipes and equipment.

In addition to working in construction, a civil engineer can be employed by an architectural design firm, a research company, the government, or universities or trade schools. There were well over 250,000 civil engineering jobs held during 2006. The industry is projected to continue growing, but the state of the economy has slowed the pace of growth a bit.

Engineers Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

Exposure to asbestos has been a serious hazard for civil engineers, especially those involved in fixing road and buildings dating back to the 1970s and earlier. In buildings, walls, ceilings, floors and shingles contain asbestos. Workers involved in road design have frequently been in contact with asbestos dust, and still do today when repairing older roads. Road gravel made of asbestos-containing rock release it into the air during traffic, roadwork and even resurfacing. From the 1970s and earlier, construction civil engineers were routinely exposed to asbestos.

It is accepted that most jobs come with some chance of job-related injuries. Still, in today's society, we expect that jobsite dangers will be kept to a minimum, risks will be clearly communicated, and companies will attempt to maintain a safe workplace. Until relatively recently, however, in terms of exposure to asbestos, workers often labored unprotected by protective equipment in environments where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.

Stationary Engineers

A stationary engineer is an engineer trained to operate, maintain and repair stationary boiler and mechanical systems. These engineers work in large power facilities, industrial factories, petroleum refineries and any large-scale facility that requires the installation of a physical plant.

Stationary engineers work with boilers and other equipment that incorporates extreme heat; prior to government regulation of the 1980s, these facilities were covered in asbestos insulation and other asbestos-containing products. Coming into contact with high-temperature pipes and boiler equipment would bring the engineer into direct contact with asbestos blankets and pipe wrapping, asbestos blocks and a variety of other asbestos products.

The regular duties of a stationary engineer would include the maintenance and repair of any faulty equipment. Because asbestos insulation would be sprayed on or wrapped around the equipment, the engineer would have to break open the insulating material to access the equipment. This is one of the major modes of asbestos exposure. While asbestos is relatively benign while encapsulated in paint or other material, when broken, fibrous dust is released into the air and inhaled, resulting in a serious potential for eventual development of asbestos-related disease.

Not only were stationary engineers required to interact with asbestos materials in this way, repair of electrical systems would also fall into their list of duties. Because of the natural tendency of asbestos to resist heat and fire, it was often used as an insulation for electrical wiring. Cutting, splicing and soldering of wire would result in the same release of asbestos dust and carry the same risk of asbestos exposure.

Sales Engineers

Sales engineer is a position found most often in technical companies, such as engineering, medical and scientific. It may seem strange to think that a sales representative would be in danger of asbestos exposure, but sales engineers were in particular danger of exposure prior to government regulation of asbestos in the 1980s.

A sales engineer is a combination of salesman and engineer, integrating the necessary technical expertise and product experience with the interpersonal skills necessary to network, pitch and sell products.

A highly complex system such as an electrical network or steam ducting for a building physical plant would require a salesperson who was also versed in the technicalities and engineering specifications of the product. The sales engineer would have to interact with the technical engineering team to explain the system specifics and with the managerial team to explain cost-effectiveness and illuminate sales points.

Because sales engineers interact with a variety of products that incorporated asbestos, they were at the same risk as stationary engineers, electrical engineers, steamfitters and a variety of other occupations.

As an example, boilers and other related equipment that incorporate extreme heat were covered in asbestos insulation and other asbestos-containing products. Sales engineers attempting to market these products would have to interact regularly with the contaminated systems.

Electrical systems prior to asbestos regulation would also contain extensive asbestos content. Wiring was insulated with asbestos to prevent electrical fires, and the advanced understanding of electrical systems by the sales engineer would have required close inspection and analysis of each of the systems or specific products offered by his or her company.

Industrial Engineers

Industrial engineers are professionals who often work behind desks rather than on the front lines of manufacturing plants, oil refineries, steel mills or other industrial fields. However, that doesn't mean that they don't get out in the field.

The goal of industrial engineers is to identify business practices that will be more efficient and more profitable. Industrial engineers work with factory owners and operators to ensure both better customer service and better product quality - all while making sure that the work environment for staff is safe, fast and as rewarding as possible. In other words, industrial engineers are those professionals who are focused on improving processes, reducing costs, increasing safety, helping business owners do more with less and ultimately helping companies to produce more products in less time.

In part, this means that industrial engineers are focused on figuring out what can be done to make things better. They engineer processes and systems that eliminate waste - the waste of materials, money, energy, time and other commodities. They are trained to enhance productivity and improve the overall quality of goods and services produced by a company.

In order to perform their function effectively, industrial engineers must personally observe the work that is being done. In steel mills, this means looking into everything in the process - from ensuring that the smelter or furnace is working properly to identifying the best procedure for bringing in supplies and eliminating waste. At oil refineries, this means evaluating crude pipelines, identifying the best processes for refining crude, and establishing the best shipping options for getting finished product to the customers. It is during these evaluations that industrial engineers may have been exposed to asbestos-containing products.

Operating Engineers

Operating engineers maintain and operate a variety of equipment in the fields of excavation and construction. Operating engineers commonly command some of the largest pieces of equipment on a jobsite, including bulldozers, backhoes and road graders.

The sources of asbestos exposure for operating engineers can be varied. One of the most obvious sources is the machinery itself. Caterpillar is one of the nation's largest heavy equipment manufacturers. As recently as 2001, Caterpillar equipment used as many as 200 parts containing asbestos, including brake pads and linings and gaskets in high friction areas that build up heat or static electricity that could cause a spark. Exposure to asbestos in this way is passive - simply by operating the machinery, which is essential to the job.

Another way that operating engineers can be exposed to asbestos is through interaction with older jobsites. Bulldozer, backhoe and road grader operators can encounter asbestos while demolishing an older building that contained asbestos or when repaving a road that integrated asbestos into the roadbed for strength. Dust ejected into the air by the construction process can contain asbestos, which was used for a variety of purposes before it was regulated in the 1980s.

As an example, road grader operators are at risk from asbestos dust that is mixed with the gravel in the road. When excavating rock at a gravel pit, it is not uncommon to encounter seams of asbestos, which are then included in the gravel. While this has been regulated in recent years and new gravel must be screened for asbestos, any construction or demolition of older roads will turn up traces of asbestos.

Operating engineers sometimes have a very dirty job, and in the course of the day they may become covered in a fine dust. If this dust contains asbestos, it is possible that it could be transported home and affect the health and well-being of other members of the family.

Mechanical Engineers

During the years of extensive asbestos use in industry, mechanical engineers were at risk of exposure to asbestos under the widest variety of conditions and circumstances. Mechanical engineers might deal with anything from consumer electrical appliance design to industrial aerospace and everything in between - all industrial sectors that heavily relied on asbestos.

Mechanical engineering is a blanket term for those engineers who design, analyze, test and then oversee production of products. Mechanical engineers are heavily used in chemical, aerospace and automotive industries. While the job description is as varied as the industrial sectors that rely on mechanical engineers, it is safe to say that they deal with electrical circuitry, thermodynamics and heat transfer - all fields which required the use of asbestos.

Between the 1940s and late 1970s, asbestos came to be used in over 3 000 products - all dealt with at some level by a mechanical engineer. Asbestos itself was useful for insulation and fireproofing because of its own resistance to heat and inability to catch on fire. Unfortunately, asbestos which is ingested or inhaled is highly carcinogenic.

Mechanical engineers, through their work with such a wide diversity of products, came to be exposed to asbestos at several points during the lifecycle of product development. During the prototype phase, the mechanical engineers involved with a product would have hands-on exposure to the asbestos components of the product. During manufacturing, a mechanical engineer might be closely involved with the product as it makes its way through the factory facility. And, of course, once the product was released to the general public and sold, the mechanical engineer would be exposed at the same level as any user of the product, further increasing the risk.

Electrical Engineers

Electrical engineers work on any product that involves the use of electricity. This includes the manufacturing of electrical equipment for communication systems, medicine and even everyday appliances. The design and installation of wiring is a significant component of electrical engineering, in both homes and commercial buildings, as well as in automobiles and aircraft.

To be successful in electrical engineering, any worker must pursue a college education. Many top universities offer electrical engineering programs. Pre-university education and continuing education and professional certification can be ongoing throughout an electrical engineer's career. Many of these opportunities are guided and even run by the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

As there are countless products that have been designed by electrical engineers, most of them included asbestos in their electrical wiring up until regulations were enforced in the middle part of the 1970s. Industrial brake pads used asbestos, but it has also been used in hairdryers and in heat-resistant pads in kitchens. Wiring in homes built up until the 1980s and commercial buildings up until 1990 may still have this asbestos installation.

Before asbestos was regulated, electrical engineers were often in contact with it. Many in fact were in constant contact with the fibrous material. Whether they were working on home or commercial wiring, appliances, and in boiler rooms or installing equipment, workers were exposed to asbestos in and on products. They unknowingly breathed in fibers that were constantly shed into the air. Electrical engineers are still at risk in old buildings and in places where strict regulations are not followed.

Aeronautical Engineers

Aeronautical engineers apply their engineering background, training and expertise to the research and building of aircrafts, missiles and space satellites. Typically an aeronautical engineer, who is educated and trained in aeronautical or aerospace engineering, works with a team of engineers to perfect their product. Aeronautical engineers typically work in the aerospace industry, for various government departments, defense agencies, research, regulations or airlines.

There are four fields that an aeronautical engineer might enter, and those are design, maintenance, manufacture or research. Depending on your involvement in any of those areas, your risk of asbestos exposure can vary. The design side of aeronautical engineering has a lower risk level than someone who is in the maintenance side.

Engineers in the aeronautical field are at greater risk of environmental contamination if they work in the capacity of retrofitting aircrafts. Some people think the risk of an aeronautical engineer is in the test flight, but it really is in the maintenance of the aircraft because of the risk of exposure to asbestos. As more aircrafts become modernized and no longer contain asbestos, the risk of exposure will decrease.

Asbestos was used in aircrafts because of its lightweight and fire retardant capabilities. When maintenance is being performed around an aircraft's engine, fuel tank, brake shoes, clutch pads or anywhere asbestos may have been used as insulation or for friction, the aeronautical engineer may be exposed to asbestos dust.

A bachelor's degree in science and engineering takes approximately four years to complete, while post grad work can be done in about two to three years. While an aeronautical engineer will learn a lot about engineering during his studies, he or she may not learn about the hidden hazards of asbestos, so it will be up to individuals to ensure their safety and take necessary precautions on the job.

Forms of Asbestos and Their Effects on Human Health

Asbestos is actually the name given to a group of minerals that is broken into two categories. The most commonly utilized was chrysotile, or serpentine asbestos. This is a relatively pliable form that is usually not associated with mesothelioma or asbestos cancer. However, if inhaled, serpentine asbestos may cause irritation to the interior surfaces of the lungs. This in turn causes a build-up of scar tissue, which is a major factor in the development of asbestosis.

The other category is known as the amphibole group; of the two types, it is much more dangerous to human health. Being exposed to amphibole asbestos is the leading cause of pleural mesothelioma, an unusual but frequently fatal disease affecting the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity). Less common forms of mesothelioma include pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma; these diseases are also associated with exposure to amphibole asbestos.

Why Asbestos was Used

Ironically, asbestos was used in building construction and in many other products because of its ability to save lives. The serpentine form of asbestos is one of the best insulators when it comes to fire and heat In addition, the amphibole varieties had other useful characteristics. "Brown" asbestos, or amosite, for instance, is high in iron content, making it resistant 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 different types of asbestos fibers, many different materials could be made that would protect people and property against fire, heat, electrocution, and chemical burns.

For the most part, new items made with asbestos were safe as long as the fibers were encapsulated. As these materials aged, however, they became friable (i.e., easily reduced to powder by hand pressure alone). When they are friable, asbestos fibers are easily dispersed in the air; inhaling asbestos fibers can cause diseases such as cancer and asbestosis. Unless strict decontamination protocols, including workplace-only clothing and on-site showers, were followed, it was quite possible for workers to bring asbestos fibers home on their skin, in their hair, or on their clothing.

A Long Latency Period

In contrast to most on-the-job injuries, which are readily observed and known about soon after the incident, asbestos-related diseases can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases - shortness of breath (also known as dyspnea), a persistent cough and pain in the chest - can often be confused with those of other conditions. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is caught, the better the odds of surviving or at the least of enjoying an improved quality of life. Therefore, if you were employed as a civil engineer, or spent significant time around someone else who was one; it is important to tell your health care professional about the chance of asbestos exposure. Early diagnosis and utilizing treatments like mesothelioma radiation can improve the prognosis for this disease as the mesothelioma survival rate is grim.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari

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

Bureau of Labor Statistics - Civil Engineer (

Penner, Rebecca - Asbestos in the Air, A Housing Boom Stirs Up Natural Asbestos in California

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal