Machinists are among many workers who risk exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. 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 and, as such, was used in building materials including plaster, drywall materials, floor tiles, roofing products, and insulation. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs in its most common form of pleural mesothelioma. Other body organs can be affected in more rare instances.
Millwrights are responsible for installing, repairing, replacing, and dismantling machinery and heavy equipment. The majority of millwrights do their work in the manufacturing and construction fields. Both of these work environments have been the source of much asbestos exposure. For example, millwrights who install and maintain turbines in power plants may be exposed to the turbine’s insulation, which in the past often contained asbestos. Millwrights working in construction face similar dangers since historically, asbestos was most often used in construction, and nearly 70% of asbestos produced now is used in that industry. From 1990 to 1999, the most frequently listed industry recorded on U.S. death certificates of asbestosis victims age 15 and older was the construction industry, with 24% of death certificates listing construction; likewise, a large number of malignant mesothelioma victims work or worked in construction industry. A 1995 study in the Britain similarly found construction workers, to be at greatest risk of contracting mesothelioma.
When placing machines requires building a new foundation, millwrights sometimes prepare the foundation themselves, while others only supervise the foundation’s construction. In either case, they work around cement products, which in the past were often reinforced with asbestos. When assembling machinery, millwrights work with bearings, gears, wheels, motors and the like, which again in the past may have been made with asbestos. Because millwrights work with tools such as cutting torches, welding machines, lathes and grinding machines, they may be exposed to asbestos dust if those tools do not have filtration systems or if the millwright has not been provided with appropriate protective equipment.
Even if millwrights don’t work directly with asbestos-containing materials, they may still be at risk if the workplace has asbestos contamination. One clinical field survey examined 110 millwright and machinery erectors from the New York City area. Forty-nine of the workers had pleural abnormalities consistent with asbestos exposure. Eighteen showed signs of pleural thickening. Thirteen workers had chest x-rays indicating interstitial lung disease. After accounting for tobacco use, the study found a correlation between length of employment as a millwright and pleural abnormalities, suggesting that even millwrights who are subject to indirect exposure to airborne asbestos dust are at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases or an asbestos cancer.
In 2001, a former millwright and his wife were awarded more than $1.5 million by a Seattle jury, who ruled that the products manufactured by the defendant were not reasonably safe, that the defendant did not adequately warn the plaintiff about the asbestos hazards, and that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, colon cancer and asbestosis. The plaintiff had worked as a millwright from 1947 to 1989, during which time he was extensively exposed to the asbestos-containing insulation that had been sprayed onto the machines he repaired and maintained.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 15 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked as a millwright 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.