Industrial engineers analyze companies to determine how efficient their procedures are and whether there are ways to improve on how things work within the structure of that business. To do their job properly, the industrial engineer has to become an expert on every level of the business. About 70% of industrial engineers work in the manufacturing industry. That means that they spend equal amounts of time on the manufacturing floor of a business as in the boardroom talking to company executives about potential improvements that could be made in the business. A lot of the products manufactured in the United States between World War II and the early 1980s contained asbestos. Some of the manufacturing businesses, especially those involving sheet metal, had huge amounts of asbestos fibers released during the manufacturing process. Industrial engineers working for these companies faced large amounts of exposure and potentially took a lot of asbestos dust home on their clothing. This asbestos could fall off in the engineer’s car or home, potentially exposing his family to asbestos as well.
Since the late 1970s regulations have been put in place to minimize workers’ exposure to asbestos. Many factories have been retrofitted to remove asbestos, and equipment in other factories has been replaced with new technology that can better contain asbestos. All of this is good news, but in many cases the person who designs the asbestos abatement plan for the company is an industrial engineer. Any remodel or retrofitting job can potentially expose asbestos that was previously contained. As soon as it is disturbed, the asbestos can become airborne and any person in the vicinity can inhale the asbestos fiber dust.
Despite researchers being aware that asbestos was dangerous, asbestos was found in as many as 3000 products during the peak of its use between the 1940s and the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is a mineral that is both chemically inert and totally resistant to fire, as well as being a highly effective insulator against both electricity and heat. Asbestos fibers break apart very easily, creating tiny lightweight asbestos dust that is too small to be seen without a microscope. When the fibers get into the body they can become imbedded in the tissue in and around the lungs, causing a host of diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Even the ancient Greeks were aware that asbestos caused problems with the lungs, and studies confirming that it causes respiratory problems were conducted during the 1930s. The general public, however, wasn’t aware of the dangers or the extent of the problem. Asbestos causes several health problems, most of which have a latency period of 15 years or more. Asbestos causes asbestosis and has been associated with several forms of asbestos cancer including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest cavity in its most popular form, known as pleural mesothelioma, as well as the heart (pericardial mesothelioma), abdomen (peritonial mesothelioma) and testicles (testicular mesothelioma). In its early stages mesothelioma only causes mild shortness of breath during exercise. Few people even recognize it a symptom of a medical problem. The difficulty in breathing gets worse as the disease progresses and is accompanied by increasing chest pain.
If caught in the earliest stages, before the cancer has metastasized, the tumor may be surgically removed. If the cancer has spread, as is usually the case when mesothelioma is diagnosed, surgical removal is less likely to be successful. At later stages doctors use a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to try to slow the growth of the cancer. Although more treatment options are being developed all the time, there is still no cure for mesothelioma, and few people live more than two years after initial diagnosis.