There is a significant chance that anyone who works in a trade in which high heat, open flame or high voltage electric current is an issue has been exposed to asbestos at some point during their working life. This includes machinists and boilermakers.
Up through the mid-twentieth century, a boilermaker did just that – manufactured, maintained and repaired the boilers used in steam-powered engines. Today, boilermakers are responsible for the repair and upkeep for the pipes and conduits as well as the boilers used for providing heat and hot water to commercial buildings as well as apartment complexes where such systems are used.
In addition to maintenance of steam-driven climate control, boilermakers frequently perform welding and pipefitting operations in power plants, aboard steam-powered vessels, and anywhere else in which steam is employed under pressure.
Because high heat is a concern in such locations, there is a high risk of asbestos exposure, and therefore the risk of developing an asbestos related illness such as asbestosis or mesothelioma.
Although the use of asbestos in construction and industry has been largely discontinued since the 1980s, it is still present in many buildings and factories built before that time. In addition, those who worked in shipbuilding trades prior to 1980 were liable to be exposed; after a 1934 tragedy in which a passenger liner burned off the coast of New Jersey, the marine industry put a great deal of pressure on Congress to require the use of asbestos aboard sea-going vessels – despite the fact that medical science had already established the health risks of asbestos exposure.
During the national emergency that began with the destruction of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in December of 1941, some people believe the Roosevelt Administration decided that industrial safety was less of a priority compared to the very real necessity for war production; according to a March 1941 memo, there was concern that tradesmen might abandon their jobs if the risks were known (which as it turned out, were comparable to those of injury or death in combat). Eventually, the government did issue safety guidelines; however, war contractors, were unwilling to cut their profits, and the U.S. Navy was either not inclined to spend the extra money on protective gear, or had no budget for providing such equipment. In any event, such safety guidelines were not enforced until the late 1970s.
For the most part, the courts have decided that ultimately, it is the corporations that manufactured asbestos products which bear liability. However, companies which have employed asbestos products in their buildings, factories and other facilities can be held liable if it is demonstrated that the management was aware of the dangers of asbestos, yet did nothing to protect its employees or contractors that worked on the property.
For example, there was a case where the courts awarded $47 million judgment for a boilermaker employed by a power-generating plant; according to the complaint, the management of the power plant was aware of asbestos dangers, yet did nothing to warn the victim, who subsequently contracted malignant mesothelioma.
In another case filed in May of 2007 in Charleston, West Virginia, the widow of a man employed by Union Carbide as a boilermaker and welder for forty-three years has brought action against sixteen different companies alleged to be connected with her late husband’s illness. The suit states that all of these companies – which owned and/or operated facilities at which her husband was employed – failed to issue proper warnings regarding the asbestos hazard.
Secondary exposure – in which family members of an asbestos worker are exposed because of asbestos dust carried home on clothing and in the hair – are also at risk of developing an asbestos cancer. However, this is more difficult to prove; a lawsuit filed in the U.K. was overturned because the appellate court determined that the Belfast-based shipyard could not have “reasonably foreseen” that the worker’s wife would have been at risk from the dust on her husband’s clothing.
In the U.S., the New York Court of Appeals rejected imposing upon employers the responsibility for secondary exposure, citing the possibility of “endless liability”. For this reason, it may be necessary to determine the manufacturer of the asbestos product, or its successor.