There are nearly 350,000 heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) workers and boilermakers in the United States. HVAC workers work in many types of residential homes and commercial buildings, including hospitals, factories, office buildings and schools. Boilermakers tend to work in buildings with poor ventilation or outdoors.
Both occupations frequently work in cramped locations, including in areas where asbestos was used. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were once frequently used for hundreds of products workers in these industries may come into contact with, including metal HVAC heating ducts, floor and ceiling tiles found in older homes and buildings and insulation. Given their typically cramped work spaces, any disturbed asbestos can easily become concentrated in the air and make those in the industry more susceptible to health risks associated with exposure.
How Are HVAC Workers and Boilermakers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
HVAC workers perform a wide variety of jobs that help keep buildings and homes comfortable to work and live in. This includes installation of new ducts and climate control systems, inspections, routine maintenance and replacement of old or worn parts. During the installation process, other skilled laborers may join in assembling the HVAC system and be at risk of exposure, including plumbers, electricians and sheet metal workers.
- Boilermakers and boiler operators
- Fabricators and assemblers
- General repair workers
- Heat and frost insulators
- Pipefitters and steamfitters
- Stationary engineers
Depending on the age and condition of the building, HVAC contractors may come into contact with materials used during the building’s construction that contain asbestos. This can include everything from furnace insulation and gaskets, to HVAC vibration dampeners, cooling towers, old air duct systems and tank insulation and casings. The risk intensifies when old ductwork with asbestos insulation is damaged, releasing asbestos fibers into the air and posing a health hazard for those in the area.
Boilermakers perform similar jobs as HVAC workers, often assembling and maintaining large boilers. Because of their size, workers could be working in high areas or even inside the boiler itself, where conditions may be damp or cramped. Boilers are also built to last and can remain in service for 50 years or more. Because of that, boilermakers are often tasked with inspecting and maintaining systems to prevent them from failing. However, a boiler’s extensive lifespan also means that there is a likelihood it contains asbestos materials. This not only includes boiler and boiler breeching insulation, but also gaskets, asbestos rope used for doors and hatches and even the blocks used for the boiler to rest on.
Manufacturers associated with using asbestos in HVAC and boiler products include Bell and Gossett, Sid Harvey Industries, the Burnham Corporation, the FMC Corporation and Goulds Pumps, Inc. Asbestos exposure may occur when workers are removing or replacing old parts, which sometimes includes grinding, sawing, cutting or otherwise damaging asbestos-containing materials. Even low levels of exposure to the toxic mineral have been tied to a handful of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, certain forms of lung cancer and asbestosis.
According to a recent study, it’s estimated that 1.3 million people working in the construction, building and maintenance industries are exposed to asbestos fibers each year. For a worker who has been exposed to asbestos while on the job, their lifetime risk of developing malignant pleural mesothelioma is about 10%. While the rate of exposure has been decreasing over the years due to a reduction in asbestos use, workers are still at risk of health problems.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers should provide certain safeguards for Class I HVAC workers, those whose work around asbestos products is potentially the most hazardous. This includes:
- Sealing heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems within isolated areas using two layers of 6 mil plastic or something similar to prevent contamination.
- HVAC systems must also be shut off during asbestos abatement projects or when working in areas where asbestos-containing building materials are likely to be disturbed.
There are also other standards in place to help all workers, like the EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which covers all public buildings, ships, farms, schools and everything associated with asbestos removal during renovations or demolitions involving regulated asbestos-containing materials (RACM). No matter how much asbestos is being removed or stripped, there are NESHAP regulations in place to prevent asbestos dust from escaping. Asbestos testing must be performed before work takes place to determine how much asbestos-containing material will be removed.
By adhering to these rules, HVAC mechanics and boilermakers can do their jobs safely and with less exposure to airborne asbestos. Despite a reduction in use, both occupations are subjected to higher risks of exposure to friable asbestos due to the age of the buildings and products they work around.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Understanding the Asbestos NESHAP. Updated February 2014.
Minnesota Department of Health. Common Asbestos Containing Products.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos Standard for the Construction Industry. Updated 2002.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Work practices and engineering controls for Class I Asbestos Operations - non-mandatory. Updated June 1995.
Sesti J, Musovic S, et al. Mesothelioma: Screening in the Modern Age. Cancer Prevention and Screening: Concepts, Principles and Controversies. 2019; 257-273.
United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Boilermakers. Updated July 2018.
United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers. Updated July 2018.