Metal lathers and millwrights perform tasks in the course of their profession that frequently bring them in contact with asbestos on a regular basis – even today. Because of the heat-producing nature of heavy industrial machinery and corresponding fire hazard, the use of asbestos insulation was common.
In addition to disassembling such machinery for repair and routine maintenance, metal lathers would need to cut, trim and fit asbestos coated materials such as gaskets and seals. This process involved cutting and grinding, both of which were liable to result in the generation of dust containing asbestos fibers. Much of this work was performed in the closed environments where asbestos dust was concentrated.
Where Was The Protection?
Prior to the late 1970s, the health hazards of asbestos exposure were a closely guarded secret by the large corporate and business interests involved in the manufacture and sales of asbestos products. Evidence of the connection between asbestos exposure and respiratory disease existed as far back as 1897; by 1931, the use of asbestos was tightly regulated in the U.K.
No such regulations existed in the U.S., however. Although scientific studies (many commissioned by asbestos and insurance corporations themselves) clearly showed that asbestos was the cause of respiratory disease, the industry itself engaged in a conspiracy of silence. Even the U.S. government was complicit, although government agencies did in fact issue safety guidelines in 1943. These “guidelines” did not have the force of law, however, and were rarely enforced.
In 1977, documents were discovered in the headquarters of a corporation known as Raysbestos. These documents consisted of letters between the CEOs of major corporations in which it was agreed that information about the harmful effects of asbestos, such as developing a rare form of asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma or asbestosis, would cut deeply into corporate profits, and that such information should be withheld from the public in the interest of return on investment and stock price.
Since then, many asbestos companies have literally paid with their corporate lives; several asbestos companies have gone bankrupt, while others have been purchased by larger corporations (legally known as “successors”).
When determining liability in an asbestos case, it is necessary to prove negligence. In the case of industries in which asbestos was used, this can pose a number of challenges. In the case of metal lathers, millwrights and other machinists, it must be shown that the company at which the victim(s) were employed was aware of the asbestos hazard, yet chose to use such materials anyway – or failed to remove such materials when health hazards became known.
This can be very difficult to prove, mainly for the reasons outlined above. Because the asbestos industry was so secretive about the information, it is likely that many third-party companies were unaware of the hazards contained in the products that were being sold to them.
In most asbestos lawsuits, there winds up being multiple defendants, which may include the asbestos manufacturer or its successors, the company that marketed and sold the substance, and even the company that installed such products.
Non-Occupational Asbestos Exposure
There have been cases in which family members have suffered from second-hand exposure to asbestos due to the dust brought home on the clothing and in the hair of asbestos workers. These cases are even more challenging, however; courts in the U.S. and the U.K. have ruled that industries could not have “reasonably foreseen” the hazards of such secondary exposure and fear “unlimited liability” on the part of corporations. Those whose family members were metal lathers or other types of machinists should discuss their legal options with a qualified mesothelioma lawyer.