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Iron Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Iron Workers, Mesothelioma and Asbestos

The iron worker trade has been in existence for well over 100 years. A skilled group of trades people called iron workers have played an integral role in the construction of some of the world's largest bridges, towers, stadiums, industrial manufacturing plants, commercial office buildings and large high-rise residential complexes. Most people think of iron workers as men or women walking on large metal beams hundreds of feet off the ground. While they in fact do this (and quite well), they are also responsible for demolishing buildings, installing and removing insulation products, creating re-bar and maintaining buildings and cranes.

Iron Workers are Frequently Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

Construction workers of all types encounter the risk of asbestos exposure on their day to day jobs. Asbestos, until the early 1980's, was a preferred material for insulation because it was inexpensive and had superior heat and fire resistance. In the mid 1970's it started to become more widely known that extended asbestos exposure could result in severe illness in people. Once this link was discovered, the use of asbestos significantly declined in construction projects, but older buildings can still carry large amounts of this toxic substance.

Iron workers were susceptible to frequent direct exposure to asbestos products. Day in and day out they would work with slate board made from asbestos as well as insulation products. Whenever insulation had to be cut to meet size specifications asbestos dust would become airborne and ironworkers could inhale it easily. Metal I-Beams were also coated with asbestos-laden insulation to prevent the structure from igniting too easily in the event of a fire and avoid a building collapse. If I-beams required inspection or repair the insulation would get removed in the process and then have to be reapplied. This too resulted in dangerous asbestos particles being released into the air which iron workers breathed in if they were not wearing protective gear.

Another hazard that iron workers faced was the fact that they worked in close proximity with other trades people who were also generating asbestos dust. For example, if a pipefitter was trimming asbestos paper to insulate pipes in the building, an ironworker could potentially be exposed to the asbestos dust generated from that work as well.

Family members of iron workers could also receive second hand exposure to asbestos from the fibers carried home on clothes, shoes and hair and they were also at risk for developing one of the illnesses described below.

Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Asbestosis are Common Diseases Found in Iron Workers

As indicated above, the link between extended asbestos exposure and pulmonary disease was established by the middle of the 1970's. At that time more and more instances of skilled tradesmen developing mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis were being seen. Provided below is some additional information about the illnesses that have been linked to the inhalation of asbestos fibers on the job.


Mesothelioma cancer is only caused by exposure to asbestos. This cancer affects the lining of three primary organs: the lungs, heart and abdomen. The organs alone do not contain the cancer unless a person goes without treatment for too long. Initially, the cancer starts either in the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma) or heart (pericardial mesothelioma). A person diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma does not generally face a favorable mesothelioma prognosis.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Being exposed to asbestos can significantly increase chances for developing lung cancer especially in smokers. Lung cancer can come from a variety of sources but asbestos exposure has known links to this disease. When asbestos exposure contributes to developing lung cancer, it is called asbestos-related lung cancer.


Asbestosis causes breathing difficulties and restricted blood flow in the lungs results from the formation of lung scar tissue triggered by extended asbestos exposure.

It is not uncommon for lung cancer to take up to ten years to start showing symptoms after a person is first exposed to asbestos. Similarly it can take thirty or forty years for mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis symptoms to begin appearing. Symptoms may seem harmless at first but should never be ignored and may include chest pain, difficult breathing, and persistent dry cough with blood in the sputum. The diseases are frequently fatal, but proper mesothelioma treatment can prolong the patient's life expectancy.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
Mesothelioma Treatment Guide

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