Resources for Patients and their Families

Furnace/Smelter Operators and Asbestos

Furnace and smelter operators are those individuals who tend to, maintain and otherwise utilize a variety of furnaces that are used in metal refineries. The profession calls on furnace and smelter operators to work with a variety of furnaces including those that operate on gas, oil, coal, oxygen, electric-arc or electric induction to melt and refine metal ores either for casting or to produce types of steel that have been ordered by plant customers. All staff in these environments are likely to have come in contact with asbestos-containing materials that were used for their fire-retardant capabilities.

Duties of Furnace/Smelter Operators

Furnace or smelter operators are responsible for maintaining the equipment that they use. This is done by:

Furnace or smelter operators are also responsible for maintaining production data and the process of producing completed goods. This is done, among other things, by:

On-the-job Dangers

It is widely understood that some jobs are riskier than others. Even so, most people in America today expect worker safety to be an important priority of companies, overseen by government agencies. In reality, however, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met in terms of asbestos exposure, and workers were subjected to conditions that jeopardized their health.

Asbestos and How It Affects Health

Asbestos is categorized into two classifications. Chrysotile, or "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine group and was the type most commonly utilized. This is a relatively pliable form that is generally not associated with mesothelioma or asbestos cancer. However, when inhaled, serpentine fibers can cause irritation to the inner surfaces of the lungs. This then results in an accumulation of scar tissue, which is a leading factor in the development of asbestosis.

The second classification is called amphibole asbestos and is much more dangerous to human health. Lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma, a rare and all too often lethal cancer of the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), are the most common cancers to result from exposure to amphibole asbestos. More unusual forms of mesothelioma include pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma, which are also caused by exposure to amphibole asbestos.

The Advantages of Asbestos

It is somewhat ironic that asbestos was used when constructing homes and when manufacturing many products due to its ability to save lives. Chrysotile asbestos is one of the most effective insulators known when it comes to combustion and high temperature and has been used for this purpose since ancient times. In addition, the amphibole varieties possessed other useful properties. For instance, amosite has a high iron content, making it resistant to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, is very good at insulating against electric current and was often used whenever high voltage was an issue. By combining different types of fibers, many different ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) could be made that safeguarded lives and property against combustion, high temperatures, electrocution and caustic chemicals.

As long as it was solid, asbestos offered almost no risk. As these ACMs aged, however, they became friable (i.e., easily reduced to powder by hand pressure alone). When friable, asbestos fibers are easily released into the environment; inhaling asbestos fibers may result in disorders like asbestosis. Asbestos fibers that coated employees' skin, hair, or clothing could also place others at risk unless strict decontamination policies, like the use of on-site uniforms and showers, were enforced.

The Ticking Bomb

Asbestos-related diseases, as opposed to most work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. It can also be hard to identify asbestos-related disorders because the symptoms resemble the symptoms of other, less serious disorders. Especially with mesothelioma, the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chances of survival or at the least of enjoying an improved quality of life. So, it is vital for those that worked as furnace and smelter operators, as well as anyone who lived with them, to inform their doctors about the chance of exposure to asbestos. Generally, the mesothelioma survival rate is low, yet early diagnosis and treatments such as 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)

Edunet Connect - Furnace Operator, Steel Mill

New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Career Solutions System - Metal-Refining Furnace Operators and Tenders

O*Net Online - Summary Report for Metal-Refining Furnace Operators and Tenders

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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