Mechanics spend much of their time inspecting, repairing and maintaining equipment to keep it in good condition and safe for use. As of 2016, there were more than one million automotive, aircraft and heavy equipment mechanics working in the United States.
Regardless of what type of mechanic a person is, there is the risk of coming into contact with toxins like asbestos while performing their daily responsibilities. The mineral was used frequently in products regularly repaired and maintained by mechanics, like brakes, putting them at a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure. Mechanics in all fields today still risk exposure when working with old parts, as well as some newer parts that are allowed to contain up to 1% of asbestos.
How Are Mechanics at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Automotive mechanics, aircraft mechanics and heavy vehicle repair and maintenance employees are still in danger of coming into contact with asbestos fibers. Despite some domestic manufacturers moving away from using asbestos in their products, aftermarket products from China and other countries tied to asbestos use likely still contain the toxic mineral. Decades ago, older cars used to contain asbestos in brake pads and brake linings, clutch facings and other auto parts. Service technicians and at-home car mechanics alike should assume that all brake shoes contain the toxic mineral and take proper precautions to prevent asbestos brake dust from becoming airborne.
- Airplane mechanics
- Automotive body and glass technicians
- Auto parts manufacturers
- Assembly line workers
- Diesel technicians and mechanics
- Industrial workers
- Shade tree mechanics
- Small engine mechanics
Chrysotile asbestos was used primarily in the braking systems of cars, airplanes and heavy equipment, and could lead to accidental occupational exposure during brake repair jobs. Auto mechanics and other maintenance workers can also find asbestos in electrical insulation, engine heat shields, gaskets and valves, heat seals, hood liners and other engine components. In most cases, the mineral was included in these products to assist with heat resistance and heat transfer, increase durability and prevent unnecessary erosion and wear.
When employees put new brakes onto a vehicle, it requires the old parts and pieces to be removed, creating an opportunity for asbestos dust to be released into the air. When a person breathes in airborne asbestos fibers, they are at an increased risk of developing one of several asbestos-related diseases, including pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.
While many companies once made use of asbestos-containing materials and products, manufacturers like Ford Motor Company, John Deere International, General Motors, Bendix Corporation (now Honeywell), Borg-Warner Automotive, Inc. and Raybestos have all been tied to asbestos product manufacturing and application. Although most uses of asbestos came to an end several decades ago, imported brake pads and friction products may still contain the mineral. As a result, mechanics are still susceptible to asbestos exposure.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency report, brake linings in 1973, when asbestos use in the United States was at an all-time high, were between 33% and 73% asbestos by weight. As a result, more than 30 million kilograms of asbestos were produced during the linings’ use each year. Today, there are safer alternatives to asbestos available, including ceramic, kevlar and metallic brake pads.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
To protect automobile mechanics and others from coming into contact with asbestos, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have established guidelines to maintain safe work areas.
When performing brake jobs at a commercial automotive repair shop, the shop must utilize one of several methods to ensure the work is being done safely. The EPA has regulations in place for how asbestos materials must be handled, including:
- Using a negative-pressure enclosure or HEPA vacuum system
- Using a low pressure/wet cleaning system
- Using a wet wipe method (this is for work areas where only a few brake jobs take place during the week)
OSHA also recommends that mechanics do their best to prevent exposure by taking several additional steps. Because it’s difficult to differentiate an asbestos-containing brake drum or brake housing from one that doesn’t contain asbestos, employees should assume every brake has asbestos.
When performing a brake job, it’s best to use parts that are ready to install, rather than ones that need to be ground, cut or drilled. By using these pre-ground parts, service technicians can reduce the amount of potentially toxic dust entering the air. Lastly, brake mechanics and other employees should remove their dirty work clothes before leaving for the day. This prevents asbestos fibers from leaving the repair shop and affecting family members at the employee’s home.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
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United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics. Updated April 2018.
United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Heavy Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Service Technicians. Updated August 2018.
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