How Are Industrial Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Because of the high heat and chemicals associated with many parts of the manufacturing and industrial process, asbestos played a prominent role in many factories and plants for much of the 20th century. Prior to federal regulations that limited its use in the United States, asbestos was found in thousands of products, including materials that industrial workers handled regularly. Because of its numerous uses, many trades within the industry continue to be at risk of exposure, resulting in adverse health effects.
- Furnace operators
- Machine operators
- Maintenance and repair workers
Many American manufacturers, power plants and factories used asbestos in their products, but the mineral was also used throughout the buildings themselves. From insulation and flooring to ceiling tiles and even the protective gear employees wore while handling hot materials, workers were often at high risk of asbestos exposure.
Employees in these industries often came into regular contact with asbestos products, including cement, roofing materials, adhesives and other refractory products, insulation and pipe coverings. For instance, power plant workers would typically repair, maintain and install pumps and valves fitted with asbestos-containing gaskets, sometimes cutting or grinding the pieces to make them fit or to remove them. These employees also cut, drilled and scraped asbestos materials during routine maintenance.
Molders were often exposed to asbestos during cold molding, a process that allows manufacturers to produce thousands of pieces quickly with little scrap. For many years, asbestos was included in these plastic molding processes for reinforcement. The hoppers used to mix the ingredients together were open, meaning toxic dust created during the mixing process was not contained. Workers in the immediate area were likely subjected to airborne asbestos dust and other toxic substances.
Due to the high risk of employees working with materials used during the manufacturing process and other finished products, industrial workers were more susceptible to developing an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma or certain types of lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), industrial and chemical workers had the highest proportionate mesothelioma mortality ratio of all occupations in 1999.
Companies, including the CertainTeed Corp., Duro Dyne Corp., A.P. Green Industries, Ingersoll-Rand, Georgia Pacific and Garlock Sealing Technologies have all been tied to asbestos use, either through manufacturing or distribution of asbestos materials and products. Workers at these facilities may have had occupational exposure to asbestos dust while on the job, and their loved ones may have been indirectly exposed to the mineral as well.
Speak with a Mesothelioma SurvivorConnect with 13-year pleural mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
Because of the heavy use of asbestos in the past, industrial workers are still at risk of coming into contact with the toxin. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has several regulations in place to protect employees, including those working in industrial plants, from occupational exposure caused by asbestos-containing products. Employers are required to take several actions to alert workers of possible asbestos exposure and preserve occupational health, such as:
- In older buildings, assume all thermal system insulation and spray-on or troweled materials contain asbestos, unless tested.
- Assume vinyl flooring installed prior to 1980 contains asbestos.
- Provide proper personal protective equipment and teach asbestos handling techniques to employees who may experience occupational asbestos exposure.
- Train factory workers and other employees each year about proper housekeeping techniques to maintain safe working conditions.
Because factory worksites may still contain areas and products that contain asbestos, it’s important for workers interacting with those building materials to understand how to prevent exposure. When cleaning up areas where asbestos fibers are suspected, employees should use a wet method to clean up the spill (to prevent the fibers from becoming airborne) or use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Vacuums that don’t have HEPA filters should never be used for asbestos abatement or clean up because they may allow fibers to become airborne and lead to asbestos-related illnesses.