Resources for Patients and their Families

Heavy Equipment Mechanics and Asbestos

Heavy equipment mechanics perform work on a number of types of equipment. When asbestos-containing products were used on brakes and clutches and to provide a buffer in other friction areas of heavy equipment, mechanics were exposed whenever they were making replacements of servicing units. In some cases, the risk of exposure occurred simply when heavy equipment mechanics were cleaning equipment, such as when they were called on to clean drum brakes using compressed air.

Servicing heavy equipment sometimes means cleaning diesel engines, replacing fiber gaskets and other insulators and cleaning the housing of these gaskets and insulators and related projects; when asbestos was widely used for insulation, these activities created some risk. In addition to servicing heavy equipment and ensuring that all parts are clean and in working order, there will be times when heavy equipment mechanics are required to do welding in order to make repairs.

Key Knowledge Applied by Heavy Equipment Mechanics

Heavy equipment mechanics are responsible for a number of things. In addition to being able to troubleshoot, service, repair and simply clean heavy equipment, these professionals are called on to:

On-the-job Risks

It is accepted that almost all occupations come with some chance of work-related injuries. Still, in today's society, we have come to expect that on-the-job dangers will be kept to a minimum, risks will be clearly understood, and companies will make every effort to create a safe work space. When it came to exposure to asbestos, however, this was not always the case, and even in recent history workers were liable to find themselves in situations that jeopardized their health.

Asbestos and Human Health

There are two major categories of asbestos. Chrysotile, often called "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine group and was the kind most commonly used. This is a relatively soft form that is generally not linked to asbestos cancer or mesothelioma. Abrasions on the interior surfaces of the lungs can happen when serpentine particles are breathed in, however. Asbestosis may be the result when abrasions accumulate in the pulmonary system.

The second type is called amphibole asbestos and is considered deadlier. A somewhat rare, but generally lethal, disease linked to asbestos called mesothelioma is caused by inhaling asbestos, particularly the amphibole varieties. The pleural variety of the illness, one that affects the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most prevalent. Exposure to amphibole asbestos is also a causal factor in the development of pericardial or peritoneal mesotheliomas, diseases that affect tissue surrounding the heart and digestive tract, respectively.

The Strengths of Asbestos

Asbestos was, ironically, generally used because of its ability to safeguard human life. When it comes to withstanding fire and heat, very few substances can equal asbestos, particularly chrysotile. In addition, the amphibole varieties possessed other useful properties. Amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, for instance, is high in iron content, making it impervious to caustic chemicals. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was commonly found near electrical equipment because of its resistance to electricity. By combining multiple types of fibers, many different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could be formed that would protect lives and property against flames, heat, electrocution and caustic chemicals.

As a rule, new items made with ACMs were considered innocuous as long as the asbestos fibers were trapped in something solid. A disadvantage of ACMS, however, is that as they get older they are prone to becoming friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Asbestos fibers, when friable, are readily released into the atmosphere, where they can cause diseases after they are inhaled or drunk. Unless effective decontamination policies, such as the use of workplace-only clothing and on-site showers, were enforced, it was common for workers to bring home asbestos dust on themselves or their clothing, thereby exposing even more people to danger.

The Hidden Hazard of Asbestos

One of the insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the associated illnesses can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear - often decades after a worker has retired from the employer. The symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestosis - chronic coughing and dyspnea (i.e., shortness of breath) - may often be mistaken for those of other, less serious disorders. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is caught, the better the chances of surviving or at the least of enjoying an improved quality of life. Therefore, if you were employed as a heavy equipment mechanic, or spent much time around someone else who was, it is important to notify your doctor about the chance of asbestos exposure. Although mesothelioma survival rate traditionally has been grim, early diagnosis and consistent treatments including mesothelioma radiation can better 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)

iSeek Careers - Heavy Equipment Mechanics

JobBank USA - Mobile Heavy Equipment Mechanics

Penn Foster Workforce Development - Heavy Equipment Mechanic

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics - Heavy Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Service Technicians and Mechanics

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