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Power Plant Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Power Plant Workers and Exposed Asbestos

History of Power Plant Workers

Power plants typically employ three types of workers: machine operators, dispatchers and distributors. These workers are responsible for running and managing power generating machines such as boilers, turbines and generators that create and distribute electricity. Over 51,000 power plant workers exist in the United States today. Operators control and monitor the power generating machines, determine which boilers and generators to use, and ensure that they are running efficiently. Distributors regulate the rate at which electricity is produced by managing current converters, circuit breakers and voltage transformers. Dispatchers need to analyze power demand and ensure that the right amount of power is produced to meet the demands of particular locations. Because electricity usage is consumed 24/7, power plant workers are needed to cover three shifts per day to ensure power generation occurs all day every day.

Power Plant Workers are Frequently Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

Power plant equipment is built with asbestos products. The very nature of work that boilers, generators and turbines perform put them at risk for combustion, fire and heat damage. As a result, pumps and valves, prior to the mid 70's early 80's, were sealed with asbestos containing gaskets, and pipes were insulated with asbestos block insulation. Oftentimes power plant workers needed to cut and sand the gaskets or block insulation to size and in this process sent asbestos particles airborne. This put power plant workers at severe occupational risk because the maintenance and construction of this fire-proofed equipment created airborne asbestos fibers that the workers were susceptible to inhaling. By the mid 1970's, a strong correlation between the inhalation of asbestos fibers and asbestos-related pulmonary disease was discovered.

Power plants also tended to have fire-proofed roof structures and floors. Asbestos was the material of choice early on to make roofs and floors fire-proof. As floors and ceilings were worked on, asbestos dust was distributed throughout the powerhouse putting all power plant workers at risk for asbestos inhalation. Asbestos could also be found in paint and plumbing fixtures. As a result, power plant workers exposed to the risk of inhaling the dangerous asbestos fibers also had asbestos dust falling on their clothes, shoes and hair. This also put their loved ones at home at risk for second hand asbestos exposure. Since the late 1970's power plants have refrained from using asbestos products to insulate and fire-proof and some have initiated asbestos abatement projects. Old asbestos may still exist even today, however, and appropriate protective gear should be worn in situations where asbestos exposure may occur.

Common Asbestos Related Diseases Found in Power Plant Workers

Mesothelioma, Asbestosis and Lung Cancer have afflicted many industrial workers throughout the United States including power plant workers. To further compound matters, the family members of these workers were often victims of second hand exposure because workers would bring asbestos fibers home on their clothes, shoes and hair. In the mid 70's the correlation between inhaling asbestos dust and developing one of these diseases really came to the fore. Provided below is a brief description for each disease type.

These conditions often take a long time to develop from the initial point of exposure. Lung cancer can take up to 10 years to develop, and asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer can take as many as thirty or forty years to begin showing signs and symptoms. Symptoms may include labored breathing, pains in the chest area, and a persistent hacking cough that sometimes produces blood. The long latency period of asbestos-related diseases complicates diagnosis. A mesothelioma prognosis is not usually favorable.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari