When we think of asbestos workers we think of people who work in asbestos mines, or maybe people who work in shipyards. We don’t usually think of a bulldozer operator. In March 2005, a man was awarded almost $2.25 million as a result of malignant mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while working on the brakes of his Caterpillar bulldozer. According to his lawyer, this was the first lawsuit of its type against Caterpillar.
Allegations have been made that Caterpillar’s heavy equipment contained as many as 200 parts containing asbestos as recently as the year 2000. Among the parts likely to contain asbestos are brake pads and linings, as well as gaskets in high-friction areas that build up heat or static electricity that could cause a spark.
Bulldozer operators also face asbestos exposure in ways that are more difficult to avoid. Any time a bulldozer is used at an old construction site to demolish a building or even when just working with dirt that formerly had a building situated on it, there is a risk of disturbing asbestos-containing material. As dust rises, asbestos fibers also become airborne where they are subject to being inhaled by the bulldozer operator and anyone else in the vicinity. The asbestos dust that gets on the operator’s clothes can be unknowingly transported home to the bulldozer operator’s family.
In recognition of the dangers of asbestos there are specific regulations now in place to reduce the risk of exposure and the chance of contracting an asbestos related illness such as asbestosis or mesothelioma. The regulations aren’t always followed, and the bulldozer operator may not even be aware of the existence of asbestos on a worksite. Some safety measures that can help protect the bulldozer operator and others on the worksite are keeping the area damp. As long as the asbestos is too wet to become airborne, it is far less likely to raise any problems. Additionally, it is now recommended that bulldozers have filtered air and air conditioning, so the operator can keep the windows closed any time the dozer is running. Finally, in situations where there is known asbestos, the bulldozer operator can wear a facemask that will filter the fibers before they can be inhaled.
When asbestos enters the body it travels to the lungs where it can becomes embedded. As the asbestos remains in the lungs, scar tissue can develop and eventually impair the efficiency of the lung’s ability to bring in fresh oxygen. Asbestos is also a carcinogen that can cause mesothelioma. In its early stages malignant mesothelioma has no detectable symptoms. As the disease progresses, mild symptoms gradually develop. At first a person may notice that he’s out of breath when exercising. Any number of things, including aging, can cause a person to feel out of breath. Since it may take 20, 30, or even 40 years for symptoms to develop, most people don’t get concerned with the onset of these symptoms.
If the asbestos cancer mesothelioma is caught in its early stages, doctors may be able to remove the tumor surgically. Unless the cancer is discovered during an unrelated physical exam, however, early detection rarely happens. If disease goes undiagnosed until more severe mesothelioma symptoms manifest, it is usually too late to operate successfully. In most cases the cancer has metastasized before it is discovered. For these patients, doctors treat the symptoms and try to slow the growth of the cancer with chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments, but mesothelioma is incurable and does not respond well to treatments currently available. As a result, mesothelioma has a high mortality rate with few people living more than two years after initial diagnosis.