An operating engineer is someone who operates and maintains heavy equipment like bulldozers, backhoes, and road graders. Mr J. was a bulldozer operator. In March 2005, he was awarded almost $2.25 million as a result of malignant mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while working on the brakes of his Caterpillar bulldozer. According to Mr. J’s lawyer, this was the first lawsuit of its type against Caterpillar.
Bulldozer, backhoe, and road grader operators also face asbestos exposure in ways that are more difficult to avoid. Any time machinery is used at an old construction site to demolish a building or even when just working with dirt that formerly had a building situated on it, there is a risk of disturbing asbestos-containing material. Road grader operators are at risk from asbestos dust that is mixed with the gravel in the road. Until the past few years large percentages of asbestos were allowed in the gravel because it is found with the gravel in rock formations that are used as gravel pits and road building sources. This is especially true in the Western states and in mountainous areas. As dust rises, asbestos fibers also become airborne where they are subject to being inhaled by the operating engineer and anyone else in the vicinity. The asbestos dust that gets on the operator’s clothes can be unknowingly transported home to his family.
In recognition of the dangers of asbestos, such as asbestosis or mesothelioma, there are specific regulations now in place to reduce the risk of exposure. The regulations aren’t always followed, and operating engineers may not be aware of the existence of asbestos on all worksites. A safety measure that can help protect the operator and others on the worksite is keeping work areas damp to keep dust from rising. Additionally, it is now recommended that heavy equipment cabs have filtered air and air conditioning, so the operator can keep the windows closed any time the equipment is running.
When asbestos enters the body it travels to the lungs where it becomes imbedded. As the asbestos remains in the lungs, scar tissue develops and eventually impairs the efficiency of the lung’s ability to bring in fresh oxygen. Asbestos is also a carcinogen that can cause a rare form of asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma. In its early stages mesothelioma has no detectable symptoms. As the disease progresses, mild symptoms gradually develop. At first a person may notice mild difficulty catching his breath when exercising. Since it may take between 15 and 50 years for symptoms to develop, most people don’t notice or become concerned with the onset of these symptoms.
If mesothelioma is caught in its early stages, doctors may be able to remove the tumor surgically. Unless the cancer is discovered during an unrelated physical exam, however, early detection rarely happens. If mesothelioma goes undiagnosed until more severe symptoms manifest, it is usually too late to operate successfully. In most cases the cancer has metastasized before it is discovered. For these patients, doctors treat the symptoms, and try to slow the growth of the cancer with chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments, but mesothelioma is incurable, and does not respond well to treatments currently available. As a result, mesothelioma has a high mortality rate with few people living more than two years after initial diagnosis.