History of the Pipe Fitter Trade
The Pipefitter trade is comprised of skilled people who are responsible for the design, installation and repair of pipe systems usually in large commercial buildings or manufacturing facilities. There are many types of pipe systems that a pipe fitter might work on and what differentiates these systems the most is the type of substances that pass through them. Pipe systems can transport a variety of substances including water, steam, air, gas and human waste. Those who work on smaller scale projects such as pipe systems in a residential setting are most commonly referred to as plumbers. Steamfitters specialize in pipe systems that handle the high pressure transport of gasses or liquid.
Pipefitters were most frequently exposed to asbestos between the 1940's and the 1980's in performing their day to day tasks. Asbestos during that time was a preferred material for insulating pipes because of its superior resistance to heat and friction. As time progressed, however, it was also discovered that the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers could lead to pulmonary disease and in the worst case asbestos cancer. Pipe fitters worked with asbestos products frequently and therefore were considered to be a high risk group for contracting an asbestos-related disease after extended exposure.
Pipefitters are Exposed to Asbestos on the Job
Pipe fitters performed many functions in carrying out their day to day tasks including planning a job, constructing systems, installing systems and maintenance. Pipefitters often worked in close quarters which further exacerbated the intensity of asbestos exposure they received especially if they did not wear a face mask or other breathing protection.
There are a number of asbestos products that pipefitters worked with that had to be cut and/or sanded down to meet size specifications for a particular project. For example, asbestos paper needed to be cut to size and insulation blocks and fillers had to be sanded to fit a particular application. As a result, much asbestos dust was released into the air and became available for a pipe fitter to breathe in if he/she did not wear protective gear. Gaskets were also frequently used in the trade and those were also made of asbestos. Because gaskets need to be perfectly fitted they would need to be ground or sanded to proper size. This again created a hazardous asbestos dust laden environment for pipe fitters to work in. Long term maintenance also frequently performed by pipefitters involved replacing old, worn asbestos parts creating further risk for workers.
Pipe Fitters Used a Variety of Asbestos Products
Aircell - This is an asbestos paper used to wrap air supply ducts. It is corrugated in nature and looks similar to cardboard. This was also known as Asbestocel and Carcycel brand asbestos paper and contained 50%-90% asbestos.
Block Insulation - asbestos combined with other binding materials used to form blocks for insulation purposes. The outer surface sometimes had no covering but generally was covered with cloth made from tar paper.
Pipefitters frequently worked with the following types of block insulation:
Amosite Sheeting: A variety of asbestos primarily used for insulating pipes.
Carbonate of Magnesia: combination of asbestos material and magnesium carbonate.
Diatomaceous Earth with Asbestos Fiber: Diatomaceous silica combined with asbestos. Favored because it could withstand temperatures as high as 1900°F.
Hydrous Calcium Silicate: Commonly referred to as 'Calsil', this substance was created by combining lime and silica with small quantities of asbestos uses in mechanical processes.
Elbow/Joint Compound: This is a filler compound sometimes referred to as insulation cement or mud that contained asbestos and bonding clay used to seal pipe joints and pipe elbows.
Asbestos Sponge Felt: Sometimes also referred to as laminated asbestos felt. This is a commonly used material made with asbestos and magnesia.
Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Asbestosis are Common Diseases Found in Pipefitters
Pipefitters were frequently exposed to asbestos dust on the job. In the mid 70's there was clear scientific evidence pointing to a correlation of asbestos exposure and the development of mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. As a result Pipe fitters and at times family members (who received second hand exposure to the asbestos dust from dirty clothes, shoes and hair) developed asbestos-related diseases.
It is important to note that these diseases may not develop in a person for as many as 40 years after first being exposed to asbestos. Lung cancer can take 10 years or more to manifest whereas mesothelioma and asbestosis can take 30 - 40 years to begin showing signs or symptoms of disease. These symptoms can include: breathing difficulty, chest pain, persistent dry cough (sometimes showing blood) and more. The long latency period between exposure to asbestos and presenting with symptoms complicates diagnosis of the disease, and leads to a poor overall survival rate.
Alternative Occupational Titles for 'Pipefitters'
Pipefitters were often known by a number of different occupational titles. Some of the titles that a person doing pipe fitting work may have had include: gas fitter, bracket worker, assemblyman, plumber apprentice, gas fitter apprentice, air conditioning installer, coppersmith, furnace installer, gas line installer, coppersmith apprentice, plumber apprentice, steamfitter apprentice, bracket man, corrosion control fitter, pipe cutter, pipe installer, pipe setter, marine pipefitter and more.