Toolmakers use various processes to form metal into tools that are used in the production of almost every other product manufactured. They also make the jigs and clamps that hold metal while it is being processed. Die makers create devices that shape hot metal in stamping and forging operations. In many ways tool and die makers are like more highly skilled and specialized machinists. Whereas a machinist makes a single part in the production process, the tool and die makers may make the entire machine and any adjustments necessary to make the machine operate more effectively.
Like other professions that worked with hot metals, tool and die makers traditionally worked in areas where the risk of fire and heat exposure was a significant problem. To protect both the workers and the building from these risks, a lot of employers relied on asbestos. Asbestos insulation around boilers and forges helped control the amount of heat that escaped into the work area, making the forge more efficient and making the work environment more tolerable. Asbestos insulation on work areas prevented slag or sparks from igniting fires, and asbestos gloves and work clothes protected the workers themselves from being burned. As a result, tool and die makers, especially up through the 1970s when regulations started going into place, were at risk to be exposed to large amounts of asbestos carrying out their job related duties.
Asbestos is the only mineral that can be woven into cloth. The fibers are lightweight and flexible. Additionally, asbestos is fireproof, chemically inert, and provides insulation against electricity and heat. Unfortunately, the many good qualities of asbestos are offset by its bad qualities. The Greeks noticed that slaves who worked with asbestos often had trouble breathing and died younger than other slaves. Studies done in the United States and England confirmed this knowledge during the same time period that asbestos production was getting its start in the United States. By 1924, doctors had diagnosed asbestosis, and by the 1930s doctors were writing medical articles about the link between asbestos and cancer.
All the studies and warnings were ignored, however, and asbestos use continued to increase until the early 1970s. People who worked with asbestos were unaware of the dangers and the government agencies and many private employers that were aware of the problems didn’t tell the public. They also made no effort to minimize workers’ exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos disease is caused when a person inhales asbestos dust and fibers. The dust is released when asbestos fibers are manipulated or damaged in some way. The asbestos fibers imbed themselves in the person’s lungs and the tissue surrounding the lungs where it is an irritant. Eventually the irritation causes scarring and difficulty breathing. Asbestos is also a carcinogen. The worst form of asbestos cancer is mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma, in its most common form known as pleural mesothelioma, is a cancer of the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest and abdominal cavity. Like most asbestos-related diseases it has a long latency period. Mesothelioma can take 15 or more years after exposure before it develops.
In its early stages, mesothelioma causes mild difficulty in breathing after exercise. This symptom is generally ignored as not being serious. As the disease progresses, breathing becomes more difficult and is associated with worsening chest pain. Surgical removal of the tumor can be an effective treatment if the cancer has not spread. If the cancer has spread, chemotherapy and radiation may be used to slow its growth, but mesothelioma is resistant to many anti-cancer drugs. There currently is no cure.