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Metal Lathers and Exposure to Asbestos

Metal Lathers and Mesothelioma

History of the Metal Lather Trade

Metal lathers work with metal to build and install framework for the inside and outside walls in building construction projects. They may also work on creating ceiling frames and room partitions. There are both metal lathers and wood lathers. A metal lather works primarily with a material called metal lath. This material is a sheet comprised of metal having many tiny holes that help plaster and stucco adhere to walls and ceilings. The metal sheet may be flat or have a rippling effect that further assists plaster and cement in sticking to ceiling or wall surfaces. Wood lathers work with a wood product called lath.

Metal Lathers have historically performed a variety of duties on the job. In the initial stages of a project they are responsible for establishing a plan and laying out the job. Next, they cut the framing material and apply the metal lath. In the final stage they create openings for air ducts, electrical outlets, and heating and ventilating pipes. Sometimes they create suspended ceiling frames to support the installation of acoustic tile. Other lathers specialize in applying stucco and plaster to walls and ceilings in remodeling projects.

Metal Lathers are Frequently Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

Construction companies, and plaster, drywall and contractors of metal lathing specialists typically employ metal lathers. For the bulk of the 20th century the building industry relied heavily on asbestos for its insulating properties and ability to provide protection from fire. All workers in the construction trade faced occupational risks due to asbestos exposure but it was not until the late 1970's that these risks became widely known. Asbestos exposure resulted from metal lathers simply working in an enclosed space where asbestos products were utilized (such as shingles and tiles) or from executing the steps of the metal lathing process discussed below.

Plaster, also called cement asbestos was a common material used in the metal lathing process. This compound was a mixture of cement, sand and asbestos fibers. The asbestos fibers helped to increase the strength of the cement which was generally applied in very thin layers. After the asbestos cement was applied, metal lathers needed to complete a finishing process that required them to sand and smooth out the finish. This sanding process released dangerous asbestos particles into the air which metal lathers were susceptible to inhaling. In situations where wall coverings needed to be replaced, the removal of plaster and cement also created an environmental risk for these workers.

Often, asbestos insulation used by pipefitters and steamfitters to insulate various types of pipe systems was used in conjunction with metal lathing. The metal lathing served to help the insulation adhere better to the pipes. This too caused asbestos dust to become airborne creating potential health hazards for industry workers.

Lung Cancer, Mesothelioma and Asbestosis are Common Diseases Found in Metal Lathers

The pulmonary diseases associated with asbestos exposure are mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. By the middle of the 1970's the consequences of extended periods of breathing in asbestos dust were fairly widely known. More and more industry workers including metal lathers were being diagnosed with one of the following diseases:

Mesothelioma Cancer

Asbestos exposure is the only documented cause of mesothelioma. This malignant cancer attacks the lining in or within key organs namely the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), heart (peritoneal mesothelioma). The most commonly diagnosed form of mesothelioma is related to the lungs, pleural mesothelioma. No form of mesothelioma has a favorable prognosis.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Lung cancer, while most closely linked with exposure to cigarette smoke is also known to be triggered by asbestos exposure. In fact, smokers who were exposed to asbestos have a 50%-90% greater chance of developing lung cancer than someone who just smoked.


Asbestosis is a pulmonary disease resulting in scar tissue formation in the lungs due to asbestos exposure. Difficulty breathing and reduced blood flow are known symptoms.

It is common for lung cancer from asbestos exposure to take up to ten years to start showing signs and symptoms and 30 to 40 years for mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis. Also, family members of metal lathers may have received second hand exposure to asbestos dust from the clothes that their loved ones wore home from the job putting them at risk as well. The long latency period and potential for unrealized second hand asbestos exposure contribute to a poor survival rate.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari