Machinists are among many workers who risk exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and body organs.
In addition to its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was also used in the production of valves, boiler and pipe insulation, ductwork, and high-temperature gaskets. It was included as a reinforcing or binding agent in plastics and cement as well. Because it doesn’t conduct electricity, asbestos was used as an insulator in wiring and on some heavy machinery.
Machinists produce precision metal parts using machine tools such as lathes, milling machines, and machining centers. Some machinists produce large quantities of a single item; other precision machinists make small batches or customized, individual items. Machinists may also perform maintenance work, repairing or fabricating new parts for existing machinery. Modern machine shops in the U.S. are subject to occupational safety and health regulations and therefore are relatively clean, safe, and well-ventilated. Many modern machines used for cutting, smoothing, and drilling are partially or completely enclosed, reducing the amount of dust to which workers are exposed. In the past, however, machinists often worked in more dangerous conditions, with asbestos particles not being filtered but instead released into the air where it could be inhaled.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 20 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked as a machinist in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.