According to its occupational definition, a steam fitter (also known as a pipe fitter) is one who “Installs, inspects, maintains and repairs steam and heating systems and such equipment as boilers, radiators, oil burners, pumps, traps, valves, and laundry and kitchen equipment; repairs and replaces pipe and pipe coverings; welds and threads pipe; performs shop work such as disassembling valves and equipment, replacing worn parts, and reassembling and testing equipment [and] cleans, maintains and repairs tools and equipment”.
These varied tasks all have one element in common; they all carry a danger of asbestos exposure. In industry as well as construction, asbestos insulation was likely to be used wherever heat or flame was a concern. In addition to fire-proofing, certain types of asbestos is particularly resistant to chemical corrosion and acid, and was therefore used extensively in chemical plants and laboratories.
The forms of asbestos most likely to be encountered by steam and pipe fitters depended largely on the nature and location of the particular job. Sea-going vessels had asbestos insulation throughout the hull on every deck, especially in the engine room. Depending on the country of registry, a ship may still contain substantial amounts of friable, or crumbling asbestos, particularly in the engine room.
When it came to lagging, or heat-shielding, steam pipes in many ships and commercial and residential buildings were frequently sprayed with a commercial product manufactured by the W.R. Grace Corporation. This product, known as Monokote, was touted by the Grace company as being “asbestos-free,” but in reality contained up to 12% asbestos.
W.R. Grace was the manufacturer of another product commonly used in all types of construction products was marketed as Zonolite. Again, the Grace corporation assured consumers that the product was “asbestos-free.” In fact, the substance used in Zonolite – a type of clay known as vermiculite – was invariably contaminated with asbestos fibers. This product was manufactured and continued to be used in construction through the early 1990s.
Yet another product steam and pipe-fitters are likely to come in contact with is “asbestos cement.” This is paneling made from thin sheets of cement that has been reinforced with asbestos in amounts ranging from 5 – 10%.
Records dating back as far as 1895 clearly show that medical science had made the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease. This fact was acknowledged by the British government by 1931, when strict regulations regarding the were put in place for industries in the U.K.
Knowledge of the health dangers of asbestos had been firmly established in the U.S. by the late 1930s. Ironically, much of this knowledge was based on studies financed by the asbestos industry itself. In 1977, documents came to light conclusively proving that the two largest asbestos producers of the time – Raysbestos and Johns-Manville – had engaged in a conspiracy to keep this information away from the public.
Likewise, W.R. Grace, Inc. continues to deny that its products were harmful. In 2005, a federal grand jury indicted seven high-level corporate officers of the company, seeking a fine in the amount of $280 million. In addition, the corporate officers named in the indictment were facing prison sentences of up to seventy years – the first time any corporate officer had faced a criminal penalty in such a legal action.
Recently however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was seeking panelists for a board that would draft a risk assessment for asbestos exposure that state and federal authorities could use in order to define such risks, such as those of contracting mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of asbestos cancer, or asbestosis. The potential nominees for this panel included 12 “scientists” and others who have in the past represented the interests of W.R. Grace, Inc. as well as a number of defense contractors. Needless to say, the potential for conflict of interest is great.