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Engineers and Asbestos Exposure

Engineers work in a variety of industries, many of which have a history of asbestos use. While an engineer’s duties do not typically involve hands-on contact with asbestos, they often supervise employees who may regularly work with and use the toxin. The proximity to asbestos puts this industry, including civil engineers, stationary engineers and mechanical engineers, at risk for asbestos exposure.

How Are Engineers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than one million Americans employed as engineers in May 2015. An engineer’s expertise is used in many capacities, such as guiding construction, aiding in product design, streamlining workplace practices and improving the safety and efficacy of any industry. Because of the breadth of their work, engineers can be exposed to a number of hazards on the job, both at a desk in the office or out in the field.

At Risk Trades
  • Aerospace engineers
  • Biomedical engineers
  • Chemical engineers
  • Civil engineers
  • Electrical engineers
  • Health and safety engineers
  • Heating engineers
  • Industrial engineers
  • Marine engineers
  • Mechanical engineers
  • Nuclear engineers
  • Operating engineers
  • Stationary engineers

Asbestos was used widely within the construction and science fields throughout the 1970s due to the material's ability to prevent fire and chemical reactions. Asbestos fibers were used in the construction of both commercial and residential buildings, and can be found in insulation, tiling, piping, electrical equipment, cement and other building materials. Engineers may be exposed to these asbestos-containing products when inspecting and overseeing workers who install or dismantle the products.

Engineers can also experience exposure to asbestos materials when using older machinery on the job. Aging heavy machinery and other equipment may contain asbestos to prevent sparking when in use. Though asbestos was often used in the machinery for flame retardant purposes, sometimes the machine’s fire-causing friction can create asbestos dust. When disrupted, asbestos particles become airborne, and the dust may be inhaled. Engineers who experience asbestos exposure are at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma cancer.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), civil engineers accounted for 3.9% of mesothelioma deaths within the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector in 1999. Similarly, stationary engineers and mechanical engineers accounted for 2.2% of mesothelioma deaths in their respective sectors for that same year.

In addition to elevated incidence of mesothelioma cancer, asbestos exposure has been shown to cause other cancers among engineers. A retrospective study from 2003 investigated data collected about more than 6,000 marine engineers between 1955 and 1988. These men not only had higher incidence of pleural mesothelioma (in the lining of the lungs), they were also found to have a greater frequency of other cancers than the general public. Specifically, the marine engineers experienced stomach, lung and bladder cancers, which the researchers attributed to a mix of chemical exposures relating to the occupation.

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Preventing occupational asbestos exposure among engineers involves enacting safety procedures in every facet of their job. Being cognizant of the elevated potential of exposure at certain job sites frequented by engineers can help mitigate the risk. Oil refineries, steel mills, power plants and construction sites are among the highest risk exposure locations for engineers.

Engineers are protected by the same Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards that are applicable to all workers in the United States.

Even engineers who do not believe they have worked, or currently work, directly with asbestos products should investigate any potential source of occupational exposure. A patient who is aware of potential exposure can expedite the diagnostic process should symptoms arise, which leads to more viable treatment options and a better prognosis. In one instance from the 1980s, a nuclear engineer never disclosed occupational asbestos exposure to his healthcare team because he was unaware that the reactors he worked on had asbestos insulation. He was diagnosed posthumously with the disease and never received the proper mesothelioma treatments.

As old uses of asbestos remain in thousands of buildings, it’s essential engineers and other high-risk workers are aware of its presence and dangers. It is anticipated that the field of engineering will continue to grow, as enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs reached an all-time high in 2017. With the help of asbestos regulations and better awareness, engineers can help prevent exposure.

Author: Tara Strand

Senior Content Writer

Tara Strand

Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli

Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their Families

Jennifer R. Lucarelli
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Sources

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment and wages of engineers in 2015. TED: The Economics Daily. October 2016.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. NORA manufacturing sector and malignant mesothelioma: Most frequently recorded industries and occupations on death certificate, U.S. residents age 15 and over, selected states, 1999. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. June 2008.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. NORA services sector and malignant mesothelioma: Most frequently recorded industries and occupations on death certificate, U.S. residents age 15 and over, selected states, 1999. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. June 2008.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. NORA transportation, warehousing, and utilities sector and malignant mesothelioma: Most frequently recorded industries and occupations on death certificate, U.S. residents age 15 and over, selected states, 1999. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. June 2008.

Huncharek M, Smith K, et al. Malignant pleural mesothelioma in a nuclear engineer. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. July 1988;45(7):498-499.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos. Safety and Health Topics.

Rafnsson V, Sulem P. Cancer incidence among marine engineers, a population-based study (Iceland). Cancer Causes and Control. February 2003;14(1):29-35. doi: 10.1023/A:1022505308892

Yoder B. Engineering by the Numbers. American Society for Engineering Education. 2017.